Exit Exam Update: Alaska, California, Texas, Massachusetts and Washington

K-12 Testing


FairTest Examiner - July 2007

Each year, exit exams block tens of thousands of students around the nation from obtaining diplomas. In Texas alone, 40,200 students in the Class of 2007 were denied diplomas this year because they failed to pass all four portions of the state test -- a 27% increase from the previous year. California now requires students with disabilities to pass a state test to graduate. On the other hand, an Alaska judge ruled it unfair to deny students diplomas when they have not been given a fair chance to learn material on the tests, and Texas and Massachusetts legislators are exploring alternatives after years of having exit exams in place.

  • An Alaska judge ruled it is "fundamentally unfair for the state to hold students accountable" for failing the state exit exam when they have not had a meaningful opportunity to learn the material. The state has a year to address inequities. In the meantime, Superior Court Judge Sharon Gleason held, "[T]he [exam] can not be used to preclude a child from receiving a high school diploma" if the child attends a school "that is identified by the state as not [providing] an adequate education." So far, just one district has been identified, but there could be more. As for what happens to students who don't pass the test next year, according to Molly Hunter, managing director of the National Access Network at Teachers College, "It may depend on how aggressively it is addressed by lawyers of the children impacted."
  • The California Board of Education voted to require special education students to pass the state test to receive diplomas in 2008. They had been exempted since the test went into effect in 2006. The Board also rejected a proposal to allow disabled students to use portfolios as an alternative route to diplomas. State officials estimate that more than half of the special education students in the Class of 2007 had not passed the exit exam by March, compared with about 10% of nondisabled students. Disability Rights Associates, a non-profit legal advocacy firm in Berkeley, said it will continue to litigate its case on behalf of students with disabilities, the Chapman/Kidd lawsuit, "until all students with disabilities are protected from the current discriminatory impact of the CAHSEE graduation penalty." DRA had sued California, leading to the moratorium (see Examiner, Summer 2003).
  • Texas lawmakers responded to mounting criticism of the exit exam, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, by approving legislation to replace TAKS with 12 end-of-course exams in four core subjects for students in 9th through 11th grade. TAKS would remain a requirement for younger students. It remains to be seen whether these exams will be an improvement. The legislation will not go into effect in 2011. Students who enter the ninth grade before 2011 have to pass the TAKS to graduate.
  • More than 30 Massachusetts legislators have cosponsored a bill to reform that state's exit exam, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). The bill would establish a graduation requirements committee tasked with developing a system of multiple measures for determining who graduates from high school. Former Massachusetts Board of Education Chair Martin Kaplan elicited applause from a packed State House hearing room when he quoted state law, saying, "I believe we have gone way off track, failing to follow the mandate…which required authentic assessment 'to measure outcomes and results regarding student performance, and to improve the effectiveness of curriculum and instruction…The system shall employ a variety of assessment instruments.' Subsequent Boards of Education and the Department of Education have instead adopted MCAS as a unitary evaluation system for all students." A former Education Commissioner, FairTest staff and dozens of educators, parents, students and community leaders also testified in support of the bill.
  • In other Massachusetts news, test reform advocates were buoyed by Governor Deval Patrick's appointment of a prominent high-stakes testing critic, Ruth Kaplan, to the state Board of Education.
  • And in Washington state, the Parent Empowerment Network/Mothers Against WASL announced in June it will file suit on behalf of students who are denied graduation because of the WASL requirement. The group's director, Juanita Doyon, charged state officials with manipulating the pass rate formula to show "great" pass rates for the class of 2008. "The state superintendent has now calculated a cumulative pass rate of 87% by removing any 2008 student who is missing credits [failed classes] and could be 'officially' considered as 10th grade instead of 11th. In October 2006, there were 80,193 students in 11th grade. Pass rates are now being based on an 11th-grade "total enrollment" of 72,917." Washington Education Association President Charles Hasse said, "It's an attempt to portray an unacceptable situation in the best possible light." Doyon's statewide group is part of the FairTest-initiated Assessment Reform Network.