Graduation exams test states' will

Groups challenge new standards to earn a high school diploma

October 08, 2007|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun Reporter

Maryland isn't the first state to have second thoughts about denying diplomas to thousands of high school kids who can't pass state tests.

As the graduation deadline grew near, Washington state delayed requiring its math exam. Utah dropped the testing requirement altogether. In Massachusetts, the teachers union mounted an ad campaign against the tests - though the state held firm.

And in California, parents got angry and filed a class action suit. Students still have to pass the tests to get a diploma, but they can stay in high school for up to six years if that's what it takes.

Across the nation, state leaders have gotten nervous as the date approaches to deny high school diplomas. They have agonized over what to do, though in the end, only Utah has decided to do away with the requirement.

"States realize that they have set standards that kids simply aren't able to meet ... or the failure rates are simply too high politically," said Jay Heubert, a professor at the Teachers College, Columbia University.

Today, 22 states require their students - about 65 percent of students in the nation - to pass high school exit exams. Maryland's state school board is faced this month with making a final decision on whether to deny diplomas to the Class of 2009 if students can't pass the High School Assessments in English, algebra, biology and American government.

A coalition of groups - teachers, principals, school boards and the American Civil Liberties Union - has come out against requiring the tests for the Class of 2009, saying too many students don't seem to be ready.

State data released last month showed that 68 percent of students in the Class of 2009 have passed the English exam. In Baltimore, 41 percent have passed. Statewide, there was a 77 percent pass rate on the algebra, 71 percent on government and 62 percent on biology.

In concept, making sure that all high school graduates are at least competent in a few basic subjects is easy for politicians to embrace. Maryland began planning more than a decade ago for high school assessments in many subjects. The testing requirement was supposed to take effect for the Class of 2007 but was delayed until 2009.

Then last month, after hearing complaints, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick proposed that students who fail the tests three times be allowed to do a senior project instead. Grasmick said it would be a rigorous assignment designed for only a few thousand students a year.

Under Maryland's current rule, students also can get a diploma by getting a minimum composite score on the four tests. And for special-education students and those with testing anxiety, a different but "comparable" test is now being tried out in three districts.

But opponents in Maryland question whether the current options will be enough for the 2,000 to 3,000 members of the Class of 2009 who the state predicts probably won't pass the tests. Critics also wonder whether the state is being overly optimistic about just how many students will pass when they retake tests during the next 1 1/2 years. The there are about 66,000 students in the Class of 2009.

In many states, the center of the debate has become the failure rates, particularly of African-Americans, Hispanics and students for whom English is their second language.

"It depends on who is failing. If it is the wealthier kids or kids with disabilities, it matters more," Heubert said.

California went ahead with the standards, with some exemptions and conditions, but opponents say it has been devastating for some students, particularly Hispanics. John Rogers, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles who researched the dropout rate in California, estimated that 20,000 fewer students graduated in the Class of 2006 - the first year the exam requirement took effect - than would have before the exams.

The schools with the largest drops in graduation rates were schools that are crowded and serve predominantly Hispanic and black students. "The politics of high-stakes testing is such," Rogers said, "that it is very difficult for officials to back away from the tests. It is very difficult for politicians to stand up and say, `I believe in high-stakes tests, but this state is not ready.'"

Lawsuits have been filed challenging the constitutionality of the tests, but no judge has ordered a state to abandon the testing, according to Jack Jennings at the Center on Educational Policy, a nonprofit that keeps track of the issue.

In Arizona, students who had met all the graduation requirements except passing the exams filed suit, saying the state hadn't provided adequate funds to ensure they were taught the necessary material. The case has yet to come to trial.

But the experience in Massachusetts is far different. Robert Schwartz, the academic dean at the Harvard School of Education who has watched the unfolding of such testing in his state, said even in the face of criticism, state leaders held firm.

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