Exit Exam Update: MD, WA, MA, CA, PA

K-12 Testing

Maryland may delay for two years imposing a graduation test requirement on students with special needs. The requirement would still apply to other members of the class of 2009, who will need to pass exams in algebra, biology, English and government to graduate from high school. State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick proposed in February that the state Board of Education (BOE) vote to delay the graduation requirement for students with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency (a BOE vote will likely not take place until August). Grasmick made her announcement just before a scheduled legislative debate on bills that propose exit exam reform in response to constituent concerns about the negative impact of exit exams and high failure rates.


Legislation has been filed to set up a weighted system of graduation requirements, reducing the importance of state test scores in receiving a diploma. Compromise bills would establish a task force to study the issue. Parent activist Sue Allison, of Marylanders Against High Stakes Testing, an affiliate of FairTest's Assessment Reform Network, called Grasmick's announcement a political ploy: "The timing of her announcement was no coincidence. What was most cruel was that Dr. Grasmick didn't call for a vote on the proposal -- she said that she would wait until August until after more data could be analyzed. Now the parents of special needs students from the classes of 2009 and 2010 are going to have to sit on pins and needles all summer long."


Facing widespread failures on the state exit exams--the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL)--legislators are expected to delay for at least three years the requirement that students pass statewide math tests to graduate. Also on the table is a plan to switch from the WASL to end-of-course exams in algebra, geometry and biology, as well as proposals to delay other WASL tests. This year's juniors were scheduled to be the first class required to pass reading, writing and math sections of the WASL tests to graduate. Depending on the final version of the law, students will have until either 2011 or 2013 before they must pass statewide math exams.


Lawmakers were reacting to the fact that more than half of all current high school juniors have yet to pass the WASL math section. These results have prompted skepticism toward the tests from some legislators and school officials. As Charlie Milligan, Tacoma superintendent of public schools put it, "If you're riding a horse and it dies, dismount. This horse is near death and it is time for us to get off."


On the first day of state testing, the grass roots group Mothers Against WASL protested at the Capitol and delivered an open letter to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Teresa Bergeson, calling for accurate reporting of WASL failures to the public and the legislature. Juanita Doyon, director of the Parent Empowerment Network (PEN), also allied with FairTest's Assessment Reform Network, said they continue to work to inform legislators of the WASL's negative impact and urge them to take action. "If the legislature fails to delay all three sections of WASL," Doyon said, "Parent Empowerment Network will immediately move forward with its plan to sue the state on behalf of students in the class of 2008 who will be denied diplomas."


In another WASL development, PEN, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and a test-taker who blew the whistle on a racially insensitive WASL question have succeeded in getting that item eliminated from the test. The reading passage, set in the 1950s, depicted Mexican immigrant children picking strawberries for less than $1 an hour, with no historical context or explanation. The test-taker reported the item anonymously, noting taunting by other students about the racist content of the test. "I know that I am not the only one offended by this, but many people are too afraid to come forward about this information, because of the fear of having their WASL disqualified and failed, all events that will happen if any student leaks anything about this test." How this passage could end up on a high-stakes exam and whether the emotional reaction to it may have lowered the scores of some students are aspects of this case that need further investigation.


A bill to reform Massachusetts' exit exam would set up a High School Graduation Requirements Committee that would develop a multiple assessment system to determine student competence to graduate. Massachusetts students have had to pass state standardized tests in math and English in order to graduate since 2003, with science pending. The committee would be directed to ensure that multiple formats and measures would be used to gauge competence, and provide students who do not meet minimum standardized test scores with the opportunity to offset their scores with other measures of performance. An April legislative briefing, in which FairTest participated, attracted some 40 legislators and their aides.


California, like Maryland and other states, is grappling with the fairness of imposing exit exams on students with disabilities. A lawsuit on behalf of disabled students prompted the state to create an exit exam exemption, which expires this December. Unless the legislature changes the law, special needs students will have to pass California's exit exam to graduate in 2008. The Board of Education is formulating a set of recommendations on appropriate graduation requirements for this group of students. Last year, 48% of disabled students passed the test, in contrast with 91% of the general population.


Despite evidence of exit exams' negative educational consequences and a link to reduced graduation rates, Pennsylania's governor is pushing to introduce a battery of new state tests to be used as exit exams beginning in 2014. A panel appointed by Governor Ed Rendell made a series of recommendations aimed at boosting high school graduates' readiness for college and careers, including a requirement that students score at least "proficient" on the 11th grade PSSA or pass a series of state-developed Graduation Competency Assessments in order to graduate. Another recommendation was that schools record PSSA scores and Graduation Competency Assessments on all student transcripts.