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Published in Print: June 23, 1999, as Wisconsin Committee Votes To Kill State Graduation Test

Wisconsin Committee Votes To Kill State Graduation Test

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Voicing their criticism in the strongest possible terms, members of a key Wisconsin legislative panel voted this month to kill their state's planned high school graduation test.

The joint finance committee voted 13-3 on June 8 to leave the test program unfunded in the fiscal 2000-01 biennial budget and to delete the law that created the high-stakes test two years ago.

Despite long-standing bipartisan support for a statewide assessment for high school students, committee members balked at everything from the test's role in graduation to the price of creating and implementing it. Under the requirement opposed by the committee, all Wisconsin high school students would have been required to pass the exam before being allowed to graduate, starting in the 2002-03 school year.

"We put too much pressure on kids in school today to say that when you're going to graduate, you've got to pass one high-stakes test," argued Sen. Russell S. Decker, the Democratic vice chairman of the joint finance committee, who spearheaded the effort to eliminate the test.

Mr. Decker, among others, also objected to the amount of money the state would need to spend on the exam. Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, a Republican, had asked the legislature to allocate $10.1 million in the 2000-01 biennial budget to create and implement the test. The governor was sharply critical of the committee's vote.

"While the rest of the nation is moving forward with stricter accountability for our schools, Wisconsin is taking a serious misstep backwards," Mr. Thompson said in a written statement. He had wanted to make the test a mandatory condition for graduation.

But the test fight may not be over. Lawmakers could amend the budget as it passes through either the Assembly, the legislature's lower house, or the Senate over the next few weeks. Mr. Thompson is expected to sign the final budget in mid-July.

No Compromises

Many legislators had pushed to give parents the option of having their children excused from taking the test for any reason. But compromises were hard to come by in the joint finance committee, said Sen. Alberta Darling, the ranking Republican on the Senate education committee and its former chairwoman.

An amendment that would have made the test one of several criteria for graduation and allowed some students to opt out failed in the finance committee on a tie vote of 8-8, said Ms. Darling, who supported the compromise plan.

Part of the problem was that legislators and members of the public didn't see the need for such a test, nor did they understand how it would work, Ms. Darling said. The legislation establishing the test requirement did not go through the normal procedure of debate in the education committees, but instead was made part of the budget bill two years ago.

"We didn't have good enough debate or enough time to be given input," Ms. Darling said.

Many lawmakers and educators were surprised the legislation was killed because, in 1997, the legislature had authorized the state education department to spend $1.3 million in fiscal 1998 and 1999 to begin development of the test, said Greg Doyle, a spokesman for the department. The pilot test was slated to be given during the 2001-02 school year.

The test mandate would have required administration of the test to high school students twice during the junior year and twice during senior year, Mr. Doyle said. Students would have been able to take the test until they passed; those who did not pass would have been required to repeat their senior year.

But critics came at the plan from many sides.

"The unique thing about it was that opposition was coming from a number of different corners," Mr. Doyle said. "As a result, [there were] a large group of people who are opposed to the law even though they're opposed for different reasons."

Vol. 18, Issue 41, Page 22

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