State Urgency Over Exit Tests Fades With Time

By David J. Hoff — June 20, 2006 6 min read
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California state officials are gearing up for a busy summer of helping high school seniors who have been unable to earn a diploma because they failed the state’s graduation test.

There will be state-financed summer school, adult education courses, tutoring in community colleges, and even an additional administration of the test in July—all designed to help the more than 47,000 students who still need to pass the test.

“There’s a host of options,” said Jack O’Connell, the state superintendent of public instruction. “I have been going up and down the state to make sure the public knows about them.”

But what happens next year, or the year after, when the spotlight on the number of students failing to clear the graduation hurdle disappears?

In other states, such interventions have faded or disappeared within a few years after the tests have become part of the educational landscape, proponents of the exit exams acknowledge. By then, they say, schools have altered their curricula, learned how to track individual students’ performance, and managed to provide the help that struggling students need to clear the bar.

“Nobody wants this to be viewed as a separate activity,” said Matthew Gandal, the executive vice president of the Washington-based Achieve Inc., a standards-advocacy group formed by governors and business leaders, referring to how schools have altered what they teach to reflect the content of the exams. “It becomes part of the way school and districts do business.”

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But some education experts say that schools’ interventions amount to little more than test review and do not ensure that students master the material on the tests, even if they squeak by with passing scores. Such programs, they say, leave students no better prepared for life beyond graduation than if they had merely completed high school without earning a full-fledged diploma.

“There seems to be a tremendous upsurge in test-prep to get people to practice on the facsimile tests,” Walter Haney, a professor of education at Boston College and a critic of high-stakes testing, said of efforts by Massachusetts’ high schools to help students pass the exams. “It seems like it’s mainly: ‘Let’s practice on the test.’ ”

State Assistance

The classes of 2006 in California, Arizona, and Utah are those states’ first that must pass high school exit exams to earn diplomas. Twenty-three states now have such exams. Maryland will require a graduation test for next year’s class, and Washington state will do so for the class of 2008. (“Washington Test Data Rekindle Concerns Over Graduation Test,” this issue.)

In most states with such a requirement, students take the high school exit exam for the first time in sophomore year. The content on the tests is usually at a 10th grade level. Students who fail usually have several opportunities to retake the tests. In many states, students must pass tests in more than one subject.

Of the 23 states currently requiring graduation tests, 16 require that schools offer remediation to students who have failed them. Of those 16 states, 12 help finance the remediation, according to research conducted by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center for Diplomas Count, a report on high school graduation rates scheduled to be published this week by Education Week.

State-financed remediation is most prevalent in states that are introducing their exit exams.

Graduation Requirement

Twenty-three states now make high school students pass an exam in order to receive a diploma. Arizona, California, and Utah required such tests for the first time this year.

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge: Graduation Requirement

SOURCE: Center on Education Policy

California has appropriated $50 million to finance after-school classes, summer school, and other programs aimed at helping students pass the state test. The state has concentrated the money in districts with high failure rates, giving them an average of $600 for every student who needs the help.

“We’re trying to be more strategic and target the resources where the biggest need is,” said Mr. O’Connell, the California schools chief.

Arizona is paying districts up to $40 an hour to tutor the almost 3,000 students who are struggling to pass the exit test there.

While such assistance is intended to help students pass the exams, legal advocates representing low-income and minority students have filed lawsuits in both California and Arizona, saying schools haven’t done enough to give students the knowledge they need to pass the graduation tests.

Last month, the California Supreme Court overturned a trial court’s order barring the state from using the California High School Exit Exam as a requirement for graduation in 2006. (“Latest Decision Keeps Calif. Exit-Exam Law as Graduations Near,” June 7, 2006.)

Also last month, an Arizona judge refused to temporarily halt the use of that state’s graduation test as a graduation requirement while a case contesting the exam’s validity is awaiting trial, which is scheduled for next month.

While the rush to provide interventions is common as states adopt graduation tests, the emergency assistance often disappears within a few years.

Interventions Fade

When Massachusetts first implemented its state test as a graduation requirement with the class of 2003, it provided $50 million a year to help high school students who hadn’t passed the exit exams and students in the lower grades that performed poorly on the state tests. That amount has declined to $14 million, but all of that money is dedicated to high school students.

“All of the general [state] aid and all of the categorical programs have to point toward improving instruction to meet the new, higher standard,” said S. Paul Reville, the president of the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy in Cambridge, Mass. Mr. Reville was a member of the Massachusetts board of education in the 1990s, when it adopted the graduation-test policy.

Likewise, in Indiana, the legislature appropriated $20 million for remediation in fiscal 2000 to help students in the class of 2000—the first group required to pass the state’s test in language arts and mathematics. That figure is $9 million for the current year.

Indiana districts have adapted to the reduced funding by being more strategic in identifying the students who need help and targeting interventions based on the students’ academic weaknesses, state officials say.

“They got better and better about zeroing in on … where the kids needed help,” said Suellen Reed, the Indiana superintendent of public instruction. “Even though they had less money, they spent it more efficiently, because they had more experience with the test and more experience with the data.”

Schools in California are starting to show signs that they are making similar progress.

Signs of Change

The number of middle schools and high schools that have aligned their curricula to match the high exit exam’s content has “increased steadily over the past several years,” the Human Resources Research Organization reported earlier this year.

The schools also have started to add remedial instruction to their regular courses in an effort to help students who are behind, the Alexandria, Va.-based nonprofit research group reported in February in a report the state commissioned to evaluate the implementation of the exit exam.

Not everything is working well in the Golden State, however. California doesn’t have a data system to track whether students who have failed the exit exam have satisfied the coursework required for graduation, the report said. Without that, the state doesn’t know how many students are being denied a diploma simply because they failed the exit exam.

Arizona has encountered similar problems.

The state’s data system isn’t sophisticated enough to tell a district whether one of its new students has already passed the state exam, said Brian R. Owin, a senior research analyst for ThinkAZ, a Phoenix-based think tank that is tracking the graduation exam.

And the state changed the format and the content of the test as recently as last year, giving districts no clear standard to shoot for, Mr. Owin said.

“Everything is so fluid that schools are living year to year, trying to keep up with the requirements,” he said. If Arizona keeps the same test into the future, Mr. Owin added, “I can see the adaptation taking place.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2006 edition of Education Week as State Urgency Over Exit Tests Fades With Time


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