Wisconsin Legislators Approve Revised Plan for Graduation Exam

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Wisconsin lawmakers have approved creation of a modified high school graduation test and tucked the provision into the long-awaited 2000-01 biennial budget that the governor is expected to sign within the next two weeks.

The test, a top priority of Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, would become one of four means of determining whether high school students should receive a diploma, said Rep. Stephen L. Nass, the education committee vice chairman in the Assembly, the legislature's lower house.

Academic achievement, recommendations from teachers, and other criteria set by local school boards would also be considered starting in the 2003-04 school year, said Mr. Nass, who, like the governor, is a Republican. Scores from the new state exams would appear on students' transcripts.

"This is a positive move by the legislature; however, the governor would have liked to see a proposal closer to the original," which would have required students to pass the test to graduate, said Darrin Schmitz, a spokesman for the fourth-term governor.

After lengthy debate, the legislature approved a $4 billion budget for K-12 education. The spending plan, which would raise school funding by 12 percent, was due July 1. But disagreement over the state budget surplus delayed action until Oct. 7, when the legislature passed the budget.

Stakes Are Lower

Mr. Thompson's original testing plan was included in a budget package drawn up last spring, but lawmakers stripped the language from the document in June following an outcry from parents who worried such a graduation requirement would be unfair to students who tested poorly. ("Wisconsin Committee Votes To Kill State Graduation Test," June 23, 1999. )

Unlike the governor's proposal, the compromise plan is not seen as carrying high stakes, because students could compensate for a low test score with high grades, good recommendations from teachers, or satisfaction of other, locally determined standards. Students who do not opt out of the test, however, must meet each component of the criteria before earning a diploma.

The new plan would also cost substantially less to implement, affect fewer students, and allow students to opt out of the test with their parents' permission.

The legislature voted to spend $4 million, rather than $10.1 million, over a two-year period to hire six new education department employees to design and implement the exam.

Under the plan, the new tests would be given twice a year to students in grades 11 and 12, starting in the 2003-04 school year. Districts would also begin withholding diplomas that year if students failed to meet the four criteria for graduation.

"We really opposed the high-stakes nature of the test," said Winnie Doxsie, the president of the 50,000-member Wisconsin PTA, which lobbied against the original legislation. The four-component plan now envisioned, she said, "seems like an educationally sound way to judge what students know."

Any graduation exams, however, can be expected to create some problems, Ms. Doxsie said. "We're worried because there's nothing in the budget that talks about remediation or any other types of assistance for children who don't pass," she said.

But by giving the test starting in the 11th grade, said Sen. Alberta Darling, the Republican chairwoman of the Senate education committee, students will have time to get needed remedial help before graduation.

And, while critics contend the opt-out provision would keep districts from getting a complete picture of how students are performing, Ms. Darling is optimistic. "If it is a reliable test that is aligned to our [state] standards, parents will want to participate to see how school districts and their children are doing," she predicted.

Budget Seen as Boon

The delay in the budget process was spurred by continued haggling over the state's $1 billion budget surplus out of the $41 billion package, Mr. Schmitz said. While lawmakers agreed to a $900 million tax cut, they also increased funding substantially for various education initiatives.

"This is the best budget we've had since the early 1990s," said Greg Doyle, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. It "is taking us down the right path toward improved student performance."

Budget highlights include:

  • $47.2 million for class-size reduction in grades K-3, up from $22 million in the prior two years.
  • $91 million to expand the Milwaukee voucher program, up from $27.8 million in the prior budget. The program offers tuition vouchers that low-income students can use at private schools, both religious and secular. The state predicts that more than 9,000 students in the 99,800-student district will take part in the program in the next two years, up from 6,200 in the past school year.
  • $603.6 million for special education, up from $551 million in the previous two-year budget.

Vol. 19, Issue 8, Page 17

Published in Print: October 20, 1999, as Wisconsin Legislators Approve Revised Plan for Graduation Exam
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