States Continue Move to End-of-Course Exams

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner, November 2009

States are revising their testing and graduation policies to deal with high costs, the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, and the obvious failure of graduation tests to ensure students are prepared for college-level work. A trend toward end-of-course exams continues to grow, with Pennsylvania, Ohio and Alabama adopting this route. North Carolina’s move to end-of-course tests has caused confusion about whether or not legislators intended to award diplomas retroactively to students who did not pass previous graduation tests. The Center on Education Policy projects that by 2015, 11 states will rely on end-of-course exams and three more will incorporate end-of-course exams as part of their graduation requirements. Some states mandate that students pass these exams to earn a diploma; others say they will simply constitute 20% or so of a student's course grade.

PA adopts end-of-course exams

A broad-based coalition of 24 Pennsylvania organizations representing educators, parents, civil rights organizations and special education advocates succeeded in reducing the weight that would be given to exit exam scores in graduation decisions and obtained other beneficial modifications, but  failed to block core parts of Gov. Ed Rendell's exit exam initiative. In October, a state regulatory body approved the plan for 10 end-of-course "Keystone" exams for high school students. 

Widespread public opposition to the plan was reflected in a legislative resolution signed by 161 legislators in September. House Minority Leader Sam Smith, who co-sponsored the resolution, said, “There is absolutely strong legislative concern and disapproval of those [testing] regulations.” In the end, however, legislators did not block the plan.

The end-of-course exams will start with English literature, Algebra 1 and biology in 2010-11. Other subject tests will be phased in through 2016-17. A selling point for the new policy was the opportunity to eliminate the current grade 11 graduation tests, assuming the state obtains approval to use the new tests for No Child Left Behind.

Districts will not have to use the Keystone exams, but can instead administer their own validated local assessments, which could include more than just tests. If districts choose to adopt the end-of-course exams, they will count as 30% of a student’s final grade in a course, but students also will have to pass some of the tests to graduate. AP exams and project-based assessments for students who fail the tests will be other options for graduation. Some students with disabilities will be exempt from the end-of-course requirements.

Despite modifications, substantial concerns about the exams persist. One is that they will be adopted primarily by districts serving low-income minority students, who will then bear the brunt of any negative consequences. Joan Duvall-Flynn, president of one Pennsylvania NAACP chapter, part of the coalition that attempted to block the policy, said the new tests would "hold children accountable for the failures of the system." Some test opponents fear few districts will be able to validate a project-based approach to the state's satisfaction, and that too many students will fail the courses, receive inadequate remediation, fall behind and leave school.

Continued battles are likely as the Rendell Administration ends its tenure at the start of 2011, while funding for these tests remains uncertain amidst the state’s budget crisis.

Ohio cuts testing costs, switches to end-of-course exams

Ohio has moved to address the high cost of over-testing and the fact that more than a decade of graduation testing has not left students better prepared for college level work. In addition to eliminating some K-8 exams, Gov. Strickland plans to replace the Ohio Graduation Test with a four-part requirement.

Ohio expects to save $9 million over two years by eliminating testing in social studies and writing in grades four and seven. Only high school students would be tested in those subjects for the next two years. Meanwhile, high schoolers will face four assessment components: the ACT test, end-of-course examinations, a senior thesis and a community-service project. They will be graded on all four and have to meet a still-undetermined composite score to obtain a high-school diploma. State funds will cover the ACT per-pupil cost of $30. "We've been giving students a test that has nothing to do with college readiness," said Ohio Board of Regents Chancellor Eric D. Fingerhut.

Alabama joins trend

Alabama too will abandon its graduation test and adopt end-of-course exams and an ACT testing requirement for 11th graders, starting in 2011-12.  Instead of the biology section of the current test, for example, students will take an exam in biology at the end of that course. Exam results will count for 20% of the final course grade, an approach similar to Tennessee's. The state Board of Education approved the change unanimously with the intention of saving money and time. Alabama media reported that the current tests eat up 15 days of instruction. As in Ohio, Alabama will pay students’ ACT exam fees. Students must take the ACT, but there’s no requirement to reach a particular score since the objective is to encourage more students to apply to college. Alabama Deputy Superintendent Tommy Bice said the change was driven by feedback that the graduation test was not a good indicator of college or career readiness.

NC may award diplomas retroactively

North Carolina lawmakers say they were misinterpreted after it was widely reported that North Carolina would award high school diplomas retroactively to students who met all graduation requirements other than the old state tests. Beginning with the Class of 2010, students will take end-of-course exams in Algebra I, English I, biology, civics and economics, and U.S. history instead of the old competency tests in math, reading and computer skills. Numerous press reports said that the North Carolina General Assembly had voted to award diplomas retroactively to students going back to 1981, when the competency tests took effect. After a conservative think tank commentary ridiculed legislators, calling this “perhaps the worst decision since the resurrection of the legwarmer,” legislators claimed they had never intended that diplomas be granted retroactively. State education officials, however, insist they had received legal advice that a state budget provision required them to find students who had been denied diplomas because of state competency tests, presumably to then award them diplomas. The matter is currently unresolved.