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State Graduation Tests Raise Questions, Stakes

By Linda Jacobson — June 24, 1998 6 min read

Throughout her four years at Benjamin E. Mays High School in Atlanta, Tabitha Whittaker made B’s and C’s. She participated in the band, the chorus, and cheerleading.

But in five attempts, Ms. Whittaker just couldn’t pass the social studies portion of the Georgia High School Graduation Test.

And in Atlanta, that meant that she was not eligible to attend commencement ceremonies with her classmates, even though she had met all of the other requirements for graduation and failed the test by just one point.

“I had a dream to be in that yellow robe on that stage,” said Ms. Whittaker, who is now preparing to take the test one more time in summer school. “You have to make a 500, and when you make 499, it’s something that really hurts you.”

Similar stories abound this graduation season as the implications of state-mandated graduation exams hit home.

A state-by-state survey released last year by the Cambridge, Mass.-based National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, found that 17 states have graduation tests and five more were planning to implement such tests.

The tests were particularly popular in the Southern states, the testing watchdog group reported. Eleven of the 15 states below the Mason-Dixon Line required students to pass such tests for graduation.

Of the remaining 35 states, only six had exit exams. But testing experts predict that the trend will continue to spread.

“My sense is that the public seems to want more testing and more testing with consequences for children,” said Eva L. Baker, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Benjamin O. Canada, the superintendent of the Atlanta school district, has been an outspoken proponent of barring students who fail such tests from participating in graduation ceremonies. In Atlanta, 272 of the city’s 60,000 public school students were left out of this year’s graduation exercises because of their failing marks on the state test.

“It’s a privilege, not a right,” Mr. Canada said of participation in commencement. “If you have not met all the requirements, there are no free rides.”

Legal Concerns

Cathy Richards, the president of the Atlanta Council of PTAs, agrees that a graduation test is needed, but said problems arise when teachers don’t adequately prepare students for the test.

Parents, she added, often mistakenly assume that a student who gets good grades in school will automatically do well on the test.

This year, state officials in Georgia estimate that some 5,000 students out of the state’s roughly 65,000 seniors had not passed all five sections, after four attempts. After this summer’s retest, that number is expected to drop by several hundred, said Pat Sandor, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education.

In their senior year, students who fail the Georgia test have four chances to retake any of the five sections and still graduate on time. A fifth opportunity is available in the summer after graduation. Tutoring and remedial programs are also available.

But remedial courses can become a form of tracking that “replaces the content courses,” argued Albert H. Kauffman, a lawyer with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

That’s one of the issues involved in the organization’s lawsuit against the Texas Education Agency on behalf of seven students who did not pass that state’s exit exam, which is part of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills.

The suit, filed last October in a federal district court, claims that the test is unfair to minorities, 50 percent of whom fail on their first attempt in the 10th grade. Of those, half never pass the exam, contributing to an already high dropout rate for minorities, particularly Hispanics, Mr. Kauffman said.

“It’s a difficult issue to work on because people think you’re against high standards,” said Mr. Kauffman, who is based at MALDEF’s San Antonio office.

When the case was filed, Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Moses denied that the test discriminates against minorities. A trial is scheduled for next March. Texas Education Agency officials also say every test question is rigorously field-tested and screened for all types of bias.

Requiring a test for graduation in Texas grew out of reform efforts in the 1980s following the release of A Nation at Risk, the influential 1983 report that contended American students were lagging far behind their counterparts in other countries, said Joey Lozano, a spokesman for the state agency.

“The public was saying that they didn’t have any confidence in the public schools,” he said. “The exit-level test is a way to address those charges that these kids are graduating without knowing anything.”

A Happy Medium?

Critics of state graduation tests disagree with the view that high-stakes tests improve student achievement.

Another report released earlier this year by FairTest--a leading critic of most standardized testing--concluded that students in states with high school exit exams don’t perform as well on the congressionally mandated National Assessment of Educational Progress as other states do. They were less likely than those in states without an exit test to reach the “basic” and “proficient” levels on the NAEP math and reading tests.

But student achievement in the southern states has trailed the rest of the country for decades. While there has been progress, as a report released last week by the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board noted, there is still much room for improvement.

High-stakes exams are also likely to expand into the lower grades, said Joan L. Herman, the associate director of the Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing at UCLA. Already, a few states are talking about holding children back from the 4th grade if they are not reading on grade level by the end of the 3rd grade.

In Georgia, state Superintendent Linda C. Schrenko is proposing using a variety of instruments to make that decision, instead of a single test.

The Ceremony Itself

But for students, parents, and policymakers, one of the most emotional issues remains whether students who haven’t passed an exam should join their classmates at graduation.

In late May, the Montgomery County, Ala., school board voted to keep students who hadn’t passed that state’s exit examination from participating in graduation ceremonies after the parents of 60 students complained about not being allowed to march.

“I thought it was a reasonable request,” Herman Harris, one of two school board members who brought a resolution to the board on behalf of the parents, said last week in an interview. “Some of these were honor students. They had no problem with having to pass the exit exam. They just wanted to walk with their classmates that they have been going to school with for 12 years.”

In Louisiana, the legislature this year approved a nonbinding resolution in favor of letting students participate in graduation exercises if they failed the test but had completed all other requirements. State education officials in Louisiana, however, say they will continue to allow local districts to make the decision on their own.

And in Georgia, the state school board has proposed writing letters to colleges on behalf of students such as Tabitha Whittaker to explain that the only thing keeping them from earning diplomas was failure to pass all five portions of the test. But state higher education officials in Georgia say diplomas are required for admission.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 24, 1998 edition of Education Week as State Graduation Tests Raise Questions, Stakes


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