Exit Exam Update: WA, TX, CA, AZ, MA

K-12 Testing

Battles over high school graduation tests continue to make news across the nation. Washington state delayed its math test requirement even as the whole graduation testing plan continues to be challenged; Texas may drop its current exams; California students and educators continue to battle for changes; an effort to obtain a preliminary injunction failed again in Arizona; and in Massachusetts, officials continue to downplay the growing dropout rate probably linked to the exit exam.


The Washington State Board of Education, faced with a 49% failure rate on the math portion of the state's exit exam, has approved Governor Christine Gregoire's recommendation of a three-year delay in the requirement that students pass the math portion of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). The WASL is scheduled to become a high school graduation requirement for the Class of 2008. The board's vote means students will not be denied diplomas for failing the math portion until 2011.


The state board heard testimony at its November meeting from a representative of the Parent Empowerment Network (PEN), an organization of Washington parents, students and educators who are fighting the use of WASL as a graduation requirement. Speaking on behalf of PEN, parent activist Juanita Doyon cited a technical report from Riverside, the testing company that developed the WASL, warning against the inappropriate use of WASL as a graduation requirement. "This is not the time to focus on revising the WASL to decrease failing percentages to a politically palatable level," Doyon said.


Doyon took issue with the limited focus on math, saying, "A solution to the math problem is not the answer. I urge you to consider WASL reading and writing alone will deny diplomas to 22% of our white students, 45% of our low income students, 46.1% of our Native American students, 46.3% of our African American students, 49.8% of our Hispanic students, 69.9% of our students in special education, and 74.8% of our students with limited English proficiency."


The Washington Education Association introduced legislation with an alternative proposal last January, called "Weighted Multiple Measures," which would lessen the weight given to the WASL scores in high school graduation decisions. The proposal gives greater weight to classroom grades, and a low performance in one or more areas could be offset by higher performances in others. A student who does not meet the minimum threshold may petition through a state appeal process, which may include the consideration of a body of evidence.

Texas, a national leader in adopting high school exit exams, could be poised to dump its controversial Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) tests. In the upcoming legislative session, Texas lawmakers will debate scrapping the state's exit exam in favor of end-of-course exams and the SAT and ACT college entrance exams as alternative accountability measures.


After seeing their system become a model not only for other states but also for President Bush's federal No Child Left Behind law, many Texans have had it with TAKS' negative consequences: narrowed curricula, teaching to the test and crippling stress placed on students and teachers. A recent editorial in the Houston Chronicle dubbed it the "dreaded" TAKS and said it is "reviled by many teachers, administrators and parents for the pressure it puts on schools and students."


State Reps. Dora Olivo and Richard Raymond, both Democrats, filed a pair of bills to abolish TAKS. "We need to do away with the TAKS test, plain and simple," Raymond said. "We tried it and it didn't work. TAKS is now hurting our educational system and our children more than it is helping." Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, a Republican, has also filed legislation to replace TAKS with end-of-course exams.


The measure to scrap TAKS is seen as a priority, with support from a number of legislators as well as Lt. Governor David Dewhurst. It remains to be seen if Texas legislators will craft alternatives that mark a significant move away from test-driven reform and toward more educationally sound practices, or whether the state will merely impose a new set of standardized tests with similarly harmful consequences.


Meanwhile, California has adoped a Texas-like policy, with the Class of 2006 the first to be denied diplomas based on the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). 38,000 students failed to graduate this year because they couldn't pass the exam.


High school students filled a Capitol hearing room in early December to tell policymakers of the toll testing exacts. "It's hard for people like me," said Luciana Reyes, 17, daughter of an American Indian mother and a Mexican immigrant father who speaks little English. "It's every parent's dream for us to pass the exit exam. But it's hard. Why can't students who work very hard at school and get good grades, why can't they pass on that?" Reyes said she has gotten good grades and wants to be a police officer but worries she will fail because of her inability to pass math.


Lawyers representing a group of students who sued the state over the exit exam are engaged in ongoing settlement negotiations (see "CA Judge Says Students Shortchanged, Upholds Exit Exam Anyway," October 2006 Examiner). Johanna K. Hartwig, a spokeswoman for Morrison & Foerster, the law firm representing student plaintiffs in the Valenzuela case, said CAHSEE results for the Class of 2007 have reinforced concerns about the tests' fairness. "Our concern about how California students are not being adequately or equitably prepared to pass the CAHSEE has been reinforced by the failure rate for students in the Class of 2007, which unfortunately mirrors that for the Class of 2006 at the same time last year," Hartwig said.


In October, a superior court judge refused to grant a preliminary injunction to halt the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) exit exam requirement. Two advocacy groups had filed a case in April charging that the AIMS graduation requirement is unfair because the state does not provide adequate funding for schools.


Massachusetts education officials downplayed recent data showing the fourth consecutive annual increase in the high school dropout rate, to 3.8% for 2004-05, and the two major Boston daily newspapers failed to report the story. However, the rate is now the highest in a decade, with some groups of students dropping out in substantial numbers.


The number of high school dropouts in Massachusetts has grown more than 30 percent in four years, to 11,145 in 2004-05, from 8,422 in 2001-02. Latino students have the highest annual dropout rate, 9.1%, a dramatic increase from 7.3% in 2001-02. Over four years, that would mean one in three Latino students leaving school without a diploma. Black students dropped out in 2004-05 at a rate of 6.3%, the same as in the prior year.


State Department of Education officials vigorously deny that the MCAS exit exam is linked to higher dropouts, citing the DOE's own "nonscientific" survey that found other factors influencing the decision. However, based on data from 2003-04, Massachusetts students in grades 11 and 12 who had not passed MCAS were nine times more likely to drop out of school than students who have passed MCAS.


What could be done? As Walter Haney, a Boston College education professor who has studied national high school graduation rates, wrote in a 2005 Washington Post commentary, "…changes in policies -- specifically providing schools with tangible incentives for keeping children in school and abandoning high-stakes testing used to make important decisions about students and schools based on test results in isolation. After all, test results can never cover all the broad goals of public education -- academic, social and vocational."


Meanwhile, the Campaign for the Education of the Whole Child, part of Citizens for Public Schools, is talking with legislators about possible bills that would amend state law to change the state Board of Education's policy of using the state test as a stand-alone graduation hurdle. Legislation to that effect will be introduced in January.