School Climate & Safety

Critics Question Fairness of Ind. Graduation-Retesting Policy

By David J. Hoff — February 13, 2002 3 min read
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Sophomores who failed Indiana’s high school graduation test because of the trauma spawned by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States will get a second chance on the reading and mathematics exam next month.

But the state is giving school officials wide latitude in deciding which sophomores retake the tests, leading some educators and observers to question the fairness of the policy. What’s more, the state won’t offer a special retest to juniors and seniors who took and failed the exam the very same week.

In Indianapolis, all 1,700 students who failed the tests given Sept. 11-13 will have a second chance at passing them. But in other cities, such as Fort Wayne and Muncie, few, if any, students will retake the tests when they are given again March 12-14.

Suellen K. Reed

“In different schools, they had different experiences,” said Suellen K. Reed, the state superintendent of public instruction. In one, Ms. Reed said, a school employee entered a room on Sept. 11 and informed students about the events in New York City and at the Pentagon. In others, school officials kept the news from test-takers, allowing them to concentrate on their task.

“If they have every reason to believe that the student should be able to pass the test,” Ms. Reed said, “the student should have the opportunity” to take it again this spring.

Critics say the state isn’t giving all students a fair chance to pass exams that are required if they are going to earn a diploma.

“Whatever is given to one child, ought to be given to every child,” said Dan Clark, the deputy director of the 45,000-member Indiana State Teachers Association. “Letting each school set its own policy doesn’t serve the state well.”

The 10th graders retaking the exams next month will essentially be given a sixth opportunity to pass them—one more than usual. The state gives the exams to sophomores in the fall. If they fail, they have two chances to pass as juniors and two more as seniors.

The 11th and 12th graders who took the tests last fall won’t get an extra chance to pass the exams during their school careers. But they will be allowed to try again once they finish their coursework, said Mary Tiede Wilhelmus, a spokeswoman for the state department of education.

Bad Timing

As Indiana sophomores began taking the Graduation Qualifying Exam on Sept. 11, news started to be broadcast about hijacked airplanes that had crashed into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and a field in rural Pennsylvania.

State officials told local administrators they could halt testing if they felt students’ performance was being affected by the news. They also gave districts an extra day to give the exams if they decided to halt the administration.

Now, the state is saying that any student who failed the tests because the emotional toll of the terrorist attacks hurt their performance should be allowed to retake them. Local officials can decide who retakes the tests based on their observations of students’ behavior during the September tests, their past performance on tests, and their academic records.

As of last week, Ms. Reed and her staff did not know how many 10th graders would be taking the graduation exam a second time.

Different Solutions

Last fall, 58 percent of the state’s sophomores passed both sections of the graduation examjust 1 percentage point lower than in fall 2000. That slight drop is the main reason the state decided against giving every sophomore the chance to retake the exam this spring.

In Indianapolis, where the failure rate rose from 74 percent to 77 percent, district officials decided that all sophomores should get a second chance.

“We didn’t feel that we would be able to decide who was more or less affected,” said Mary Louise Scheid, the director of school and community relations for the 41,100-student Indianapolis public schools. “So we said all the kids could take it.”

Officials in other districts, however, saw little impact from the Sept. 11 events on student scores. In Muncie, for example, the overall passing rate was up, and when school officials reviewed failing students’ past performance, they found few whose scores did not match earlier test scores and past grade point averages.

“We felt it wouldn’t be appropriate to ask for wholesale retesting,” said Stephen L. Edwards, the assistant superintendent for instruction for the 8,500-student Muncie community school system.

A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Critics Question Fairness of Ind. Graduation-Retesting Policy

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