State Exam Changes Hold Promise, Peril

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner, March 2009

State graduation exams and their ill effects continue to spur calls for change, and some actual movement, in Washington, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The good news is a growing recognition of the damaging consequences from these graduation tests. It’s unclear from preliminary efforts, however, whether exit exams will be replaced with superior assessments or simply other tests that are equally onerous and inadequate.

For example, a growing trend toward end-of-course exams could be a positive development if limits are placed on the weight of the tests and the exams are superior to the current mostly multiple-choice tests. Tennessee, for example, says the test results will count as 25% of the required course grades -- but they remain mostly multiple-choice.

In November, Washington voters elected a new state superintendent of public instruction, Randy Dorn, based largely on his promise to replace the current state tests with ones that are more useful, less expensive and less cumbersome. Within a month of taking office, Dorn announced his plans to dump the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), the tests used both for school accountability and as exit exams. The Everett, WA, Daily Herald reported, “[Dorn has] won plenty of applause from teachers and parents sick of the WASL and ready for change.”

Dorn announced a plan for a new set of computerized tests of reading, writing, math and science by 2012. With students taking the tests on computers, Dorn expects the results will be available within two weeks of testing much more quickly than with the paper and pencil WASL.

Parents and teachers are also pushing to eliminate the state's graduation exams, but Dorn says seniors will still have to pass reading and writing tests, or an alternative, to graduate. (He wants to delay the math test requirement until 2014.)

Juanita Doyon, director of the Washington statewide Parent Empowerment Network, gives Dorn good marks for his first steps. “Besides making plans to replace WASL, he has begun his term by taking on some of the unintended consequences of the myriad of WASL regulations.… Superintendent Dorn has put a stop to 9th graders taking the 10th grade WASL, saving state taxpayers half a million dollars! This is a good start.”

Replacing WASL may be an improvement, but Dorn's proposal would appear to perpetuate the use of mostly multiple-choice high-stakes tests for state and federal accountability, as well as the exit exams. However, he and some legislators also have expressed interest in strengthening local and classroom-based assessments, potentially leading to a higher-quality assessment system.

Ohio may scrap its current graduation test. Governor Ted Strickland has proposed that students complete end-of-course examinations, write a senior thesis, take the ACT college entrance exam, and complete a community-service project instead. Students would reportedly have to earn a certain composite score on all the assessments to earn a high-school diploma. Composite scoring systems allow a student to offset weak results in one subject or form of assessment with strong results on another. This could ensure that one or two points on a single test would not prevent any student from graduating in Ohio. The state also continues work on developing alternative assessments (see Examiner, July 2008). 

In Pennsylvania, a pitched battle over a proposed new battery of high school exit exams continues (see Examiner, December 2008).  In early March, a key ally in the fight against graduation tests, the Pennsylvania School Board Association, reached a compromise with the Pennsylvania Department of Education that allows use of the tests or locally developed alternatives approved by the state. However, other organizations, including the Pennsylvania State Education Association, vowed to continue the battle, and there remained significant opposition in the state legislature.

One bone of contention is that, despite a state law imposing a one-year moratorium on the development of the "Graduation Competency Assessments," the Department of Education has solicited bids for test development. At a February hearing before the Senate Education Committee, Senator Jane Orie accused Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak of disregarding the law.  Orie has introduced legislation to give the Legislature sole authority to impose new statewide graduation requirements. "Pennsylvania does not have the money in this economic climate to create a new, unproven program," Orie said. Zahorchak replied that the tests will be used regardless of whether they are exit exams.

FairTest testimony at the hearing documented exit exams’ negative consequences around the nation: “The problems exit exams are meant to solve are real… For too many students, the cure is worse than the disease. Rather than ensure better education and expanded opportunities, graduation tests add punishment - denial of a diploma - to those who most need help.” FairTest’s full testimony is available here:

- FairTest’s fact sheets summarize why exit exams don’t add value to high school diplomas ( and the proper use of end-of-course exams (

- The Parent Empowerment Network is at