College & Workforce Readiness

N.Y. State Seniors Flunk Exit Exam, But Get Diplomas

By David J. Hoff — July 09, 2003 5 min read
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New York state officials allowed thousands of students to graduate from high school last month even though the seniors had failed a requisite mathematics exam, because the test may not have been fair.

The experience illustrates yet another kind of obstacle states may encounter as they ramp up their high-stakes exams.

The decision to let the seniors don their graduation gowns followed a week of acrimony over what school officials said were unusually high failure rates on the “Math A” state regents’ exam. Citing early indications that the June 17 test was flawed and unfair, Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills gave districts permission to award diplomas to seniors who had passed the course that is based on the state’s math standards.

New York officials have begun studying the problems, asking a series of questions about whether the test itself was too difficult, whether it accurately reflected the course content in the high school math standards, and whether schools are able to help all students reach the new, high standards to earn a high school diploma.

The experience shows that any of the 24 states that now or soon will require an exit exam need to proceed cautiously and be prepared to fix problems quickly, New York officials and national experts say.

“If this can happen to us,” said James A. Kadamus, the state’s deputy commissioner of elementary, middle, and secondary education, referring to the state’s long history of offering the regents’ exams, “it can happen to anybody.”

While New York’s public relations problem of denying students their diplomas on the eve of graduation has been averted, state leaders still face questions about their ambitious plan to require all students pass regents’ exams—tests once given only to the college-bound. State legislators have already said they will hold hearings on the exams, amid a growing public backlash.

“The media attention hasn’t died down,” said Tom Rogers, the executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. “That speaks volumes about the level of concerns that are out there.”

In the fallout from the flap, Roseanne DeFabio, the state’s assistant commissioner for curriculum, instruction, and assessment, resigned after Mr. Mills said he would take the testing program out of her office, a department spokesman said.

Going Slow

States that have been writing high school exit exams have all hit minor snags along the way, according to Keith Gayler, the associate director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank that tracks such issues.

Most states have been able to deal with their problems, Mr. Gayler said, by delaying test implementation. Just last month, the Ohio school board decided it would conduct an extra round of pilot-testing of its graduation exam because failure rates in the first go-round were too high, according to J.C. Benton, a spokesman for the education department.

Other states have made minor adjustments. Nevada temporarily lowered the passing score on its exam, and Florida has allowed students to substitute their scores on the SAT and ACT college-admissions tests. (“States Debate Exam Policies for Diplomas,” May 14, 2003.)

But none has faced the question of whether to deny students diplomas based on what is perceived to be an unjust test.

Since 1996, New York has been phasing in the rule that students pass regents’ exams to graduate. Seniors needed to pass tests in English, math, world history, American history, and one science subject this year. They are given several chances to pass each. Students at any grade level can take the tests when they finish their coursework. Some even enter senior year having passed them all.

After the students took the June 17 math test, local school officials who scored the exams noticed a higher-than-average number of students were failing. About 5,800 seniors—or about 4 percent of the total class of 2003—took the test on that date. Early estimates suggested that at least 70 percent of juniors and seniors did not pass, Mr. Kadamus said. Freshmen and sophomores fared better, he noted.

Faced with mounting criticism, Mr. Mills, the state schools chief, announced on June 24 that seniors who had passed the Math A course would be allowed to graduate on time. Graduation dates vary statewide, but they began shortly after Mr. Mills announced his decision. He also said juniors who flunked the exam would be eligible for graduation if they passed a Math A course.

Freshmen and sophomores will have to pass forthcoming versions of the exam to earn diplomas, if they haven’t done so already.

To address what went wrong, Mr. Mills said in his June 24 announcement that he had convened a panel of experts to review the test and decide whether it properly assessed the content of the curriculum and whether it was too difficult.

An estimated 80 percent of the freshmen who took the June 17 test passed it, according to Mr. Kadamus. He speculated that group was made up of high-achieving students; otherwise, they would not have taken the test at that early stage. The seniors who took it then were more likely to be those who struggle with math.

“One theory is that we have a set of expectations embodied in this exam that is running ahead of where the field is for all students,” he said. “I’m not sure we’ve found the right instructional methods to get them there yet.”

Similar problems are bound to surface in any state that is trying to require high standards in all schools, contends Jack Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy. “They’re raising the bar, but they’re raising it in an unequal system,” he said of states. “They’re facing the reality of how unequal American education is.”

New York educators say they believe the problem lies with the test itself. After reviewing the exam, which is available to the public, Mr. Rogers of the superintendents’ council said he found it to be harder than previous versions.

Degree of Difficulty

The June 17 test required students to apply mathematical principles in ways the previous exams had not. The test’s final problem required students to use the Pythagorean Theorem two times in a three-dimensional object to arrive at the correct answer. Most students hadn’t been shown how to use the theorem in anything other than simple problems, Mr. Rogers said.

“That makes it more of a riddle than an assessment of math skill,” he said. “I don’t know if those kinds of insights are what we can expect at the commencement level yet.”

Mr. Kadamus of the state education department said the June version had more such problem-solving questions than previous exams because the state is gradually raising its expectations.

Such additions may give rise to a higher hurdle for one set of test-takers than another. Even the best test-writers can’t produce two tests that are of equal difficulty and cover the same material, said Daniel Koretz, a professor of education at Harvard University.

The question for policymakers, he pointed out, is how much deviation from year to year are they willing to tolerate.

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