Exit Exam Battles Continue

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner - April 2008

Reports of the death of opposition to exit exams has been greatly exaggerated, as shown by vigorous debates in New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Tennessee and Washington. Meanwhile, Nebraska’s and Rhode Island's systems that use multiple and local measures are facing attacks designed to bring them in line with the high-stakes test exam approach. On the bright side, New Jersey educators, students and parents have a victory to celebrate.

New Jersey will continue its alternative graduation system, the Special Review Assessment (SRA), and monitor its use rather than eliminate it as some had urged. The state Board of Education voted unanimously, 8 to 0, in March to “retain and reform” the SRA, which requires students who have not scored high enough on graduation exams to complete a series of performance tasks aligned with state standards. Unlike the state tests, the SRA is administered locally in less formal, untimed settings. The vote also called for development of a revised “Alternative High School Assessment,” modeled on the SRA, to be implemented in 2009-2010. Though the SRA was attacked as being too easy, proponents argued that eliminating it would increase dropouts. New Jersey has one of the nation’s highest graduation rates and one of the best rates for students of color.

“The vote was a victory for efforts to keep multiple measures and alternative assessments as part of New Jersey graduation and assessment policies and for the more than 10,000 New Jersey students who annually use the SRA to earn a high school diploma,” said Stan Karp, director of the Education Law Center’s Secondary Reform Project. "But we also need to stop using exit tests…as a substitute for the deeper reforms our middle and high schools need.” Karp says there needs to be “creative curriculum reform, instead of one-size-fits-all standardization, tying school programs more closely to the real world students are about to enter and addressing directly the deep alienation young people face in large, anonymous high schools.”

- For an excellent paper on the SRA that includes rich evidence on the flaws of high-stakes testing, see http://www.edlawcenter.org/ELCPublic/elcnews_080324_SpecialReviewAssessm...

Maryland testing reform advocates suffered a setback when legislation to repeal the pending Maryland graduation requirement was sent to study, or killed, by the education committee. The current policy says that, starting with the Class of 2009, students who don't pass tests in algebra, biology, English and government won't get diplomas. Delegate Jay Walker, a sponsor of one of the bills, said the tests should not bar graduation, period. "The bills point the finger not only at lawmakers, but at the state school board and the Department of Education for moving forward with the test without preparing students to pass,” Walker said. “I don't see how we can mandate this on the children. The public should be in an uproar over this thing.”

At recent legislative hearings, the public was in an uproar. "It started as a whisper, and now it's growing into a roar. People are very concerned about these tests," said Delegate Justin Ross. Parents packed a March legislative hearing to say the tests are unfair and bad educational policy. "What will happen to all these students who don't pass?" asked Kitty Hollister, mother of a 15-year-old who is dyslexic and must pass the tests. And Lesa Moore, mother of a high school student, said "it's going to be chaos" when the requirements take effect next year because students who don't pass the exams will have nothing to show for 13 years in school.

Test reform advocates vowed to press on and are considering next steps, which could include a renewed push to have the Board of Education change its policies. New members have recently been appointed by Governor Martin O'Malley, who has been critical of high-stakes testing (see Examiner, January 2008).

- FairTest’s testimony to the Maryland Joint Committee on Education is at http://www.fairtest.org/sites/default/files/MD%20gradtest%20testimony%20...

- For the web site of Marylanders Against High Stakes Testing, see http://www.geocities.com/stophsa/

In Pennsylvania, many school boards are mobilizing and passing resolutions opposing Governor Rendell’s proposed exit exam policy (Examiner, January 2007). By mid-March, 81 school boards had passed such resolutions, with at least that many more expected to pass. If the graduation test policy is adopted, Pennsylvania students, starting with the class of 2014, will have to pass state exams in reading, math, science and social studies to get high school diplomas. Major state education and civil rights organizations have joined the growing campaign to block the requirement. Some who support the proposal acknowledge the widespread opposition. "People are sick of tests. ... It's become a four-letter word in education," said Erie School District Superintendent James Barker.

The proposal is being evaluated by the state attorney general’s office and legislative education committees. A FairTest commentary published in the Philadelphia Inquirer in November urged Pennsylvanians to choose a different path: “Pennsylvania must take strong action to address the problems of unequal schools and inadequate outcomes, from providing funding equity among rich and poor towns to stronger staff development and high-quality assessments. That means ensuring all children experience a well-rounded education and avoiding the magic-bullet false solution of a high-stakes graduation test.”

- Relevant materials: http://www.elc-pa.org/nochild/nochild.html

The Tennessee Board of Education voted in January to scrap its Gateway graduation tests starting with freshmen entering high school in 2009-10. Instead, these students will take end-of-course exams in English I, English II, English III, Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, U.S. History, Biology I, Chemistry and Physics. The results of these exams will be factored into students’ grades for each course with a weight of 25%. Studies have already shown nearly half of students in high schools serving poor, minority students are not prepared to pass Algebra I, never mind Algebra II, for which the state lacks an adequate supply of teachers.

Latricia Wilson
Until then, Tennessee students will still have to pass the "Gateway" exit exams to earn a diploma. Memphis student Latricia Wilson (in photograph) was denied a regular high school diploma in 2002 because she failed the math section of the test. She has a mild learning disability that affects her math performance and realized only after trying to apply to postsecondary schools that her special diploma was worthless. “It didn’t dawn on me that I was being blocked at every level,” said Wilson, now 25, “until I went to practically every school in Memphis and was turned down.”

Wilson says that students receiving these non-diplomas "are not allowed entry into post-secondary institutions, because High School Certificates are described as having gone to school but not learning anything. …High school seniors who are issued High School Certificates as an exiting document are put at a great disadvantage economically in today’s society.” She has researched state and federal education law and is on a campaign to correct the injustice that she and thousands of other students continue to be victims of an exit exam policy that has been deemed ineffective by the state. A class action suit filed on behalf of Ms. Wilson and other students denied diplomas was dismissed on a technicality, but Wilson says if she cannot find another attorney to file suit, she will do so herself.

This year’s seniors are the first who must pass Washington State’s exit exam, the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), to graduate from high school. With pressure on the rise, teacher opposition to the high-stakes tests is boiling over, as shown by plans for a vote of no confidence in the state superintendent of public instruction, Terry Bergeson, an avid test supporter. "Her over-the-edge commitment on this has really created a big problem," said Dan Wilson, president of the Edmonds Education Association. "She endlessly says what a fabulous test it is, and teachers are saying, 'No, it's not.'" The Auburn, Bremerton, Edmonds, Seattle, Lake Washington and Lake Stevens teachers unions are among the affiliates considering votes of no confidence. Meanwhile, extremely weak results on the math section of the WASL prompted state lawmakers to vote to replace that section with end-of-course tests on individual math courses starting in 2014. This comes after last year's vote to delay the requirement that students pass the math portion of the WASL until 2013 (see “Exit Exam Update,” Examiner, April 2007). As a result of the recent vote, students in the class of 2013 will have a choice of passing the math WASL or taking end of course exams.

- For a cartoon by David Horsey lampooning Terry Bergeson’s belief in testing’s magical powers, see http://seattlepi.com/horsey/viewbydate.asp?ID=1734.

Nebraska’s much-praised School-based Teacher-led Assessment Reporting System (STARS) system may be dismantled under new legislation, less than a year after legislators voted to impose statewide standardized tests as a complement to its locally developed assessments. Nebraska is alone in using local assessments to meet requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind law (Examiner, April 2007). The STARS system has been lauded for involving teachers in the development of high-quality assessments that can be used to improve instruction and learning. Even so, the legislature has passed a bill to impose state-level standardized testing on what has been a model of innovation. Standardized tests would replace STARS in reading, math and writing. At the start of April, Commissioner Doug Christenson resigned.

Many educators believe STARS has been worth fighting for. As Chris Gallagher, associate professor of English at University of Nebraska, said in a speech to the North Dakota Study Group in February, “The engagement agenda that drives STARS provides an unrivaled and much needed vision for democratic public education in the 21st century. At its core, it is a vision that seeks to reclaim the profession for teachers, classrooms for students, schools for communities, and education for democracy. I don’t know what will happen to STARS in the end, but I do know that this is a vision for the long haul.”

- See http://www.fairtest.org/nebraska-points-way-forward

- More on Nebraska STARS at http://www.nde.state.ne.us/STARS/

- Gallagher speech at http://ndsg.org/documents/Gallagher_NE_NDSG_Presentation_2008.pdf

This year’s seniors are the first Rhode Island high school students who must meet the requirements of an innovative multiple measures system of determining graduation. But before the first class even receives diplomas under this system, political pressure has been mounting to increase the weight placed on state test scores from the current 10% to one-third of the graduation decision.

Like Wyoming (see “Wyoming Steers Clear of Exit Exams,” Examiner, January 2007), Rhode Island developed its system to ensure graduates excel in oral and written communication, have a good foundation in math, the capacity for teamwork and the “critical thinking skills necessary to research and solve problems creatively and effectively.”

This year, Rhode Island students must demonstrate mastery of the high school curriculum in three ways: pass a minimum of 20 required courses, take state tests in English and math, and complete two out of these three requirements: a portfolio, a senior project, or end-of-course exams.

Rhode Island uses the NECAP tests, or New England Common Assessment Program, developed in collaboration with New Hampshire and Vermont. All three states saw disappointing NECAP results, particularly in math, adding fuel to calls in Rhode Island to make the tests “count.” However, New Hampshire and Vermont are among the highest scoring states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, leading some evaluators to question whether the math NECAP is absurdly difficult.

Testing opponents have dominated public hearings on the proposed graduation rule change, but it remains to be seen whether the Board will listen to the public and take note of the many harmful consequences of graduation tests.

FairTest submitted testimony to the Rhode Island Board of Regents and had a letter praising the current system printed in the Providence Journal Bulletin.

- FairTest testimony to Rhode Island Board of Regents at http://fairtest.org/sites/default/files/RIBoardRegents.pdf

- FairTest letter at http://www.fairtest.org/lisa-guisbond-all-hail-ri-diploma-system

- More information on the Rhode Island Diploma system is here. http://www.ride.ri.gov/HighSchoolReform/DOCS/PDFs/HIGH%20school%20reform...

Massachusetts’ test reform movement has been declared dead many times since the state exit exam took effect in 2003. Nevertheless, hundreds of students, parents and other concerned citizens packed a State House hearing room in February calling for reform of the state’s exit exam policy. Five years after the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exit exam took effect, dropouts are at a nine-year high, lending weight to claims that the exam depresses graduation rates, especially for minorities, English language learners and students with disabilities.

Eighteen-year-old Sable Covil addressed the crowd after nearly every student in the room had raised a hand to indicate they knew someone who had dropped out. "The way things are set up now, we are losing a generation of creative, talented, intelligent young people,” Covil said. “It's time to change our schools so that they are able to see that we have a chance for a decent life and to reach our full potential." Covil is part of Teen Empowerment, an urban youth group that has long battled the graduation test.

An MCAS reform bill backed by advocates had been sent to study, so attendees shifted their focus to Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who has appointed a commission to recommend new education policy for the next ten years. Its report is expected sometime this spring.

- To read more about Teen Empowerment, see www.teenempowerment.org.

• FairTest fact sheet on graduation and grade promotion tests: http://fairtest.org/sites/default/files/High-stakes%20Testing%20Fact%20S....

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