As states edge toward their deadlines for denying students diplomas based on state tests, many have blinked, either postponing the day of reckoning or modifying their original plans.
“We’ve already seen a lot of states that are making adjustments,” said Kathy Christie, the director of the information clearinghouse for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. “I don’t believe I’ve seen anyone, so far, that has totally backed off, nor do we truly expect that to happen.”
Only this month, for example, the North Carolina board of education delayed by one year its requirement that students pass new high school exit tests to earn a diploma.
Last month, the Alaska state school board recommended pushing back the state’s exit-test requirement from 2002 to 2006, a change that requires legislative approval.
Arizona officials have sent a letter to districts asking for their advice about the best timing to implement new test requirements for graduation, following initial high failure rates. The state already has postponed until 2004 a requirement that students pass a math test to earn a diploma, but students in the class of 2002 still must pass the writing and reading portions.
And in Wyoming, a bill approved by the House education committee this month would create three types of high school diplomas— “advanced,” “proficient,” and “individualized"—based on a student’s ability to meet new graduation requirements. The state board of education previously delayed the date by which students must meet the standards to earn a diploma, from 2003 to 2005. Unlike in other states, Wyoming schools are expected to collect a “body of evidence” to measure whether students have achieved proficiency in each content area.
Such moves follow on the heels of earlier delays in Alabama and Maryland.
Other states are standing by their original timelines, but are simplifying the content of their exams, lowering the passing scores required for graduation, or adding appeals processes and accommodations for students who may be having difficulty.
Last month, for example, the California state board approved a recommendation by Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, to shorten a new high school exit exam by as much as one hour and to delete some of the most advanced math questions.
In Ohio, a gubernatorial commission has recommended replacing the existing high school exit test with end-of-course exams. It also called for doing away with a requirement, scheduled to take effect in spring 2002, that 4th graders score at the “proficient” level on a state reading test to advance to 5th grade.
Also last month, the Louisiana board of education adopted a policy that permits 8th graders who fail the state test three times—even after repeating a grade and receiving remedial instruction—to enroll in an alternative program that would lead to a General Educational Development diploma and a “skills certificate,” rather than a regular high school diploma. Students could re-enroll in the regular high school program at any time after they pass the 8th grade test.
“There are always people who would like to say we’re watering it down, but that’s simply not the reality,” said Walter C. Lee, a member of the Louisiana board. By providing students with an alternative to dropping out of school, he argued, “we really have strengthened the program.”
Meanwhile, Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci and Lt. Gov. Jane Swift released a set of recommendations this month to bolster support for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, which has come under fire from some parents and educators following initial high failure rates. The class of 2003 is the first that will have to pass the mathematics and English sections of the exam to earn a diploma. In 1999, only 67 percent of 10th graders passed the English section of the test and 44 percent passed the math section.
Twenty-four states now require students to pass state tests to earn a diploma, or plan to do so. And many are increasing the difficulty of those exams.
“It appears that on these tough tests, the failure rates are so high that they are literally politically untenable, and so states are forced to address them,” said Monty Neill, the executive director of FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit group that opposes high-stakes testing.
High failure rates have clearly rattled Alaska policymakers. In his State of the State Address two weeks ago, Gov. Tony Knowles warned: “We face the prospect that up to two-thirds of our high school students aren’t on track for a diploma under the current exit-exam law. That’s neither acceptable, nor fair.” Mr. Knowles, a Democrat, urged the Republican- controlled legislature to find a “more responsible effective date for the high school graduation exam.”
Susan Stitham, a high school English teacher and the chairwoman of the Alaska state board of education, said that “the bottom line for me is that 2002 was not a date that was selected with any thought. Nobody ever said, ‘When can you be ready, or when can the kids be ready?’ It was just plopped on us.”
The board was also concerned that some of the math questions on the state test might be too hard, she said, contributing to the low success rates. “Are all the things that are on there really what a student needs to know and be able to do to graduate from high school?” Ms. Stitham asked. “I don’t think so. Like many states, we’re having problems with the math.”
Similar issues are vexing lawmakers in Arizona, where 88 percent of all sophomores who took the state math exam in spring 1999 failed. The dismal results prompted state education officials to make new rules: High school students will have to take algebra in 9th grade and geometry in 10th grade.
The state also has agreed to drop some of the most difficult math items from the exam, a problem for which state schools Superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan said she takes responsibility. “I thought we had some items on there that were outside the parameters that were absolutely non-negotiable for all students,” she said.
‘Do It Right’
But the bigger problem, Ms. Keegan asserts, is the poor connection between the state’s math standards and what students are learning and teachers are teaching in classrooms. The state set the original target date for linking test results to a diploma before it had data on how fast students’ scores could improve, according to the schools chief. Now, she argues, those dates may have to be delayed a year or two.
“My bottom-line goal is, do the kids get there? Do we teach them what they need to know?” Ms. Keegan said. “You can only go as fast as you can go.”
Others say the Arizona board decided to revisit its timelines under intense pressure from state legislators. “Essentially, the state board of education has taken the AIMS test off the table,” said state Rep. John Huppenthal, a Republican, referring to the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards. “They were on the verge of losing complete legislative support for the program, and I think they realized that.
“They’re high-quality standards,” he added, “but they just present an enormous political problem—essentially a train wreck—in which children who have been accepted to quality universities can’t get out of high school.”
North Carolina board members decided this month to slow down their graduation requirements—until the class of 2004—after watching such controversies unfurl in other states. Philip J. Kirk Jr., the chairman of the state board, said the state wanted to do adequate field-testing of the new exam to ensure confidence in the passing scores. State officials also wanted more time to communicate with the public and educators about the exam.
“We’re sacrificing a year or two in order to get the test right and to get more confidence in it,” Mr. Kirk said. “I didn’t want to delay it even one day. However, even I was persuaded by the testing experts and the legal staff that we’d better do it right. I also was persuaded that maybe we have not done a good enough communication job with teachers and with high school students.”
But Mr. Kirk said he was adamantly opposed to putting the requirement off for two or three years, an idea expected to come up at next month’s board meeting.
‘Highly Charged Debates’
Improving public communication about state tests is also an issue in Massachusetts, where the Massachusetts Teachers Association has launched a $600,000 advertising campaign against what it calls the “one-size-fits-all, high-stakes, do-or-die MCAS test.”
State officials announced this month that they plan to spend as much as $1.5 million on a public relations campaign of their own in behalf of the controversial exam. “These are highly charged debates,” said Lt. Gov. Swift, “and in highly charged debates, there is often misinformation, some of which is spread purposefully.”
Ms. Swift described the package of changes recommended by the Cellucci administration this month as “fine-tuning.”
“We have not backed down from the graduation requirement, nor have we backed off from the timetable for the graduation requirement,” she said. “In fact, all of the recommendations that the governor and I have made are designed to keep us on schedule.”
Some of those changes include creating a more focused retest for students who initially fail the exam; permitting students who still have not passed the test by the end of 12th grade to enroll in alternative programs at community colleges; establishing an appeals process for students who score within a couple points of passing and who believe their exams may have been scored incorrectly; offering a four-year tuition waiver to state higher education institutions for students who do well on the test; and narrowing the history section to focus on American rather than world history.
But some of the biggest—and most sensitive—changes are designed to address the needs of special education students, who fail the MCAS at a higher rate than their other classmates do. The same issue has come up in states such as Alaska and Wyoming, where students with disabilities also will have to meet state standards to earn a diploma.
Mr. Cellucci, a Republican, has asked the Massachusetts education department to review and expand the list of allowable testing accommodations for special-needs students. He has also asked the state board of education to set up an appeals process that would review whether such students who failed the exam were given adequate accommodations.
A similar appeals process would be available for students without special needs who failed to meet the passing standard by the senior year of high school and wanted similar accommodations.
But the most contentious proposal in Massachuetts is to introduce a separate “state-endorsed certificate” for special education students who cannot achieve a passing score on the MCAS but who have achieved the goals in their individualized education plans required under special education law. The certificate would not be a diploma and would not automatically allow students to enroll in state colleges or universities.
Ms. Swift said state officials were trying to address the “legitimate needs” of a small percentage of special education students who would not be able to meet the state standards, while maintaining pressure on districts to help most special-needs students meet the graduation requirement.
The proposal has enraged some in the special education community. “I think it’s a really regressive, terrible idea because it’s going to create a two-tiered system,” said Lisa A. Guisbond, the parent of a 2nd grader with a learning disability. Ms. Guisbond, who co-chairs the Brookline chapter of the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education, which opposes the high-stakes testing requirement, said the certificate “would be essentially worthless to [students] in terms of going on to higher education or getting employment.”
But S. Paul Reville, the chairman of a state committee charged with overseeing the implementation of the law that created the MCAS, said the needs of special education students would not be ignored, as long as the state required districts to show progress in their achievement.
“The package shows, for the first time, a willingness to make some accommodations to some of the concerns that critics have been raising about MCAS over the past couple of years,” he said. But “it may be too little, too late.”
That’s certainly the view of FairTest’s Mr. Neill. While parent and teacher opposition has prodded the state to act, he said, “we think the response is mostly irrelevant and has angered more people than it’s pleased.” Tinkering with high-stakes testing rules or delaying the timelines, Mr. Neill argued, “doesn’t change the fundamental issue that you shouldn’t make decisions this way.”
In other states as well, the debate is far from over. A legislative aide in Alaska predicted “quite a battle” over any attempt to change or delay the diploma rules.
And in Ohio, an aide to Sen. Robert A. Gardner, a Republican and chairman of the Senate education committee, said that GOP lawmakers there are split about whether to end the state’s requirement tying student promotion to testing. Legislators also are trying to sort out whether end-of-course exams would interfere with local control by leading to a state- level curriculum.
Testing and the use of tests to make high-stakes decisions “is going to be a big issue for us this year,” predicted Julie Davis Bell, the education program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “We will watch it very closely.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2001 edition of Education Week as States Adjust High-Stakes Testing Plans