Exit Exam Update: MD, CA

K-12 Testing


FairTest Examiner - October 2007


Twenty-six states have or plan to implement high school exit exams, affecting about 70% of American high school students. Maryland's exit exam policy is due to take effect in 2009, but state officials are divided on how to proceed. California's exit exam took effect in 2006, creating a spike in dropouts and prompting the legislature to pass a bill calling for a multiple measures system.

After public hearings revealed significant public concern about Maryland's exit exams, set to become a requirement in 2009, the state's graduation testing policy remains uncertain. State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick offered several proposals to the State Board of Education in September, including allowing students the option of completing a senior project as an alternative route to graduation. Board members engaged in a marathon debate, but came to no conclusion. An alliance of education, civil rights and community organizations is working to prevent the exams from becoming high stakes.

Sue Allison, of Marylanders Against High Stakes Testing, an affiliate of FairTest's Assessment Reform Network, said hearings about the exam featured many parents with a range of concerns. "All of the special education parents attending the meetings were very angry," Allison said. Many parents complained of the long scoring turnaround time, having just received scores for their children from the tests they took last May. (To speed grading the state now plans to eliminate essay questions and rely only on multiple choice questions for exit exams, beginning in May 2009.) Some said the exam content is not appropriate for their children's needs. For example, one parent commented that their child would be better served by functional math rather than the algebra that they will be tested on. One special needs advocate charged the state with failing to grant appropriate accommodations for students with disabilities.

Only students on track to fulfill other graduation requirements would qualify for Grasmick's senior project option. The state would set standards for the project, but local systems would establish details. Other options included delaying or phasing in the graduation test, or even getting rid of the requirement but keeping the exams, as well as simply keeping the tests with no project. The policy that was due to take effect in 2009 says students must pass tests in four subjects, algebra, English, biology and American government. Some board members have said they fear the exit exams will cause large numbers of minority students to be denied diplomas. School board President Dunbar Brooks made no commitment that a decision would be reached by the board's next meeting in late October.

Meanwhile, the Washington Times reported in August that Maryland education officials inflated the current exit exam pass rate for the Class of 2009 by 12.5%. Rather than report the actual percentage of the class that has passed to date, 62.6%, they factored in the anticipated number of dropouts and came up with a pass rate of 75.1%. "It's almost like 11,000 kids just evaporated," said Terrylynn Tyrell, education policy director of Advocates for Children and Youth. "I think what people are most concerned about is there's this assumption that there are thousands of students who will drop out."

Legislators in California passed a bill in September creating an alternative to the state's exit exam, which took effect for the Class of 2006. Bill 1379, sponsored by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica), would not eliminate the exit exam but would pave the way for a multiple measures system of determining graduation. Brownley's bill would require State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell to hold public hearings and consult with Governor Schwarzenegger's education secretary and then submit recommendations to legislators next year.

The bill has the support of the California Teachers Association, the California School Boards Association and the California Federation of Teachers. It is similar to a bill that Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed in 2005.

"Alternative methods can be just as rigorous as a paper and pencil test. The difference is the ability to more effectively engage students in the learning process and provide more appropriate avenues for demonstrating skills and competencies," Assemblywoman Brownley said. "This bill really is about a higher and richer standard." The governor has 30 days to sign or veto the bill.

The graduation rate for the California high school class of 2006, the first required to pass exit exams, dipped to a 10-year low. State Department of Education figures showed the graduation rate was 67% of 423,289 seniors, down from 71% in 2005. The number of students who did not get a diploma was 21,000 greater than the previous year. John Affeldt, an attorney at Public Advocates who has opposed the exit exam for nearly a decade, said, "This unfortunately is fulfilling the prophecy that I laid out to the Legislature in 1999, which was that if the state did not adequately prepare our students to pass the test, then we would see a significant drop in graduation rates."