A decade ago, attention-grabbing headlines about how football and cheerleading came before academics in Texas high schools nagged at educators across the state.
To combat the image problem, then Gov. Mark White appointed scrappy businessman Ross Perot to develop a school reform plan that would put an end to the damning news stories—including the ones about Texas high school and college graduates who couldn’t read or decipher a bank statement. In 1984, Perot issued a slate of tough, no-nonsense proposals; topping the list was the state’s now well-known “no pass, no play” plan. The reform package also included the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. Policymakers believed that a graduation exam would weed out students who had dawdled through the state’s lackluster schools without learning much.
Texas was by no means the only state grappling with such concerns. Now, a decade after the Perot reform plan, 20 states have exit exams for their high school students. In Louisiana this year, more than 1,500 students were denied diplomas after 12 years of public schooling because they couldn’t pass that state’s test. In Ohio, where the U.S. Education Department is reviewing the graduation exam, 3,200 seniors did not graduate because of low test scores.
But in many states, including Texas, the graduation test has become more than an insurance policy against illiteracy. Policymakers have grafted the test onto a host of new reforms aimed at raising standards and ensuring accountability. Beginning this year, for example, Texas students will receive an individual learning index that shows what percentage of the state’s academic expectations they have met—as determined by standardized test scores. What’s more, school accreditation in Texas is now largely based on the test scores of students beginning in the 3rd grade.
State officials say the new standards—including the exit test and more rigorous course requirements—place a higher premium on learning and improvement and force the state’s schools to boost their expectations. “This is not intended to lay blame on students, not solely,” says Della May Moore, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. “It is important that we set standards and let the professionals who are closest to the students decide how to reach them and how to teach.”
Yet many local educators are far from certain that the current graduation test is the best way to sort out which students deserve diplomas. “We ought to be accountable,” agrees John Horn, superintendent of the 28,000-student Mesquite Independent School District. “But too many people have this belief that they can put their faith in numbers, and this testing program has become almost a runaway train in the nation.”
Horn fears an altogether different trend. “There is a diminishing value being placed on the authority of teachers to assess student learning,” the superintendent says. “We are placing confidence in a test that is probably not very well-founded. It’s one thing to say this is the problem. It’s another thing to find the best solution. What you want to get is excellence, not compliance.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Pass or Fail