Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Poster Paper: Redefining Fairness in High School Equivalency Tests: The Case of Incarcerated Youth

Friday, November 13, 2015
Riverfront South/Central (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Kri Burkander, Sultan Turkan, Rene Lawless and Amy Riker, Educational Testing Service
While high school equivalency tests (HSEs) are typically thought to provide a second-chance opportunity for social mobility for those who have been unable to complete a traditional high school degree, these tests have also historically been used to reproduce existing social stratification (Bowles & Gintis, 2011). One subgroup likely to take HSEs is incarcerated youth, who are more likely than their peers to have a special education disability and perform several years below grade level (Cavendish, 2013; Burdick et al., 2011). These youth experience a myriad of educational challenges during their commitment and upon release, which places them at greater risk for dropping out of high school (Aizer & Doyle, 2014; Osher, et al., 2012; Feierman et al., 2009; Houchins et al., 2009). Recognizing that high school dropouts are disproportionately of a lower socioeconomic status and members of racial minority groups (Tyler & Lofstrom, 2009; Leone & Weinberg, 2010), improving the educational and economic outcomes of these individuals is of dire import if we are going to see any real change in the racial/income gap. To this end, one area for policy reform is in evaluating the high school equivalency tests themselves with an eye toward validity and fairness for these special populations. This paper considers issues of fairness and validity of these tests for incarcerated youth.

When evaluating the validity and fairness of a test, one must simultaneously evaluate the assumptions regarding the test’s domain, its use, and the inferences drawn from its scores (Kane, 2013). In the development of any HSE, we must examine how tests will be used by test takers and interpreted by those who receive the scores. In doing so, it is critical to explore the characteristics of the test-taking population and their motivation for taking the test to ensure that the test is appropriately designed to measure what it purports to measure. We also need to consider the institutions that will receive these scores, and the ways in which these scores will be used for decision-making.

This paper describes the educational characteristics of incarcerated youth, exploring their reasons for taking HSEs and the kinds of accommodations they may need in order for the test to serve as a meaningful credential. We also consider the recipients of the scores, namely colleges/universities and increasingly, the workforce, because although dropouts report that they take the test in order to gain entry into postsecondary institutions, only 30-35% of GED holders obtain any postsecondary education (Tyler, 2001). This exploration is done in the context of the development of a new high school equivalency test, the HiSET, currently in use in fourteen states. As ETS continues to develop and refine the test, we consider the issue of validity when assessing incarcerated youth, and propose modifications that enable us to reconstruct a definition of fairness while holding these populations accountable for what they know. The paper makes recommendations that reconceptualize the design, implementation, and scoring aspects of a next-generation assessment to reflect the needs and abilities of incarcerated youth.