College & Workforce Readiness

States Debate Exam Policies for Diplomas

By Lynn Olson — May 14, 2003 10 min read
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Faced with high failure rates for at least some groups of students, several states are debating whether to delay or modify requirements that students pass state tests to earn diplomas.

California’s board of education may postpone a requirement that students in the class of 2004 pass an exit test, after a new study suggested at least a fifth of them—and much higher proportions of their classmates with disabilities or limited English skills—would not graduate if the deadline went unchanged.

In Massachusetts, where this year’s seniors must pass the English and math portions of a state test to get diplomas, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a measure last week that would let some students in special education earn diplomas even if they fail the exam.

And in Florida, where more than 13,000 seniors may not qualify for standard diplomas this spring because of their scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, a bill awaiting the governor’s signature could permit students to use scores from other exams in lieu of the FCAT, starting with the class of 2004. State law already waives the requirement for some students with disabilities.

As it stands, 24 states either now require students to pass exit or end-of-course tests to earn diplomas or plan to do so. In the past few years, several of them—including Alaska and North Carolina— have postponed executing those rules because of initially high failure rates.

Political leaders in California, Florida, and Massachusetts say they remain firmly committed to their graduation standards. Now, though, they are caught in a balancing act between maintaining the school improvement momentum that such requirements have generated and ensuring that they are being fair to students.

“It’s sort of like policymakers are staring into the eyes of high- stakes testing and seeing who’s going to blink first,” said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Are policymakers willing to penalize kids even though the political establishment has not made the commitment to improve the quality of schools?” he said.

Progress and Gaps

California requires students in next year’s senior class to pass both the English and mathematics portions of the California High School Exit Examination to earn diplomas.

An independent evaluation, mandated by the legislature and released May 1, found that the requirement had led to “dramatically increased” coverage of the state’s academic-content standards and to more remedial courses. But it cautioned that many students in the class of 2004 had not been adequately prepared to benefit from such changes, and that passing rates remained low in many schools.

The report estimates that, at the current rate of improvement, about half the English-language learners and 75 percent of the students with disabilities scheduled to graduate next year will flunk the math portion of the test.

Even that prediction may seriously underestimate the problem, because students must pass both sections to be awarded diplomas. Although the figures have likely improved, the most recent data on cumulative passing rates on the state education department’s Web site indicate that through May of last year, fewer than one-third of Hispanic or black students in the class of 2004, and fewer than two in 10 of those in special education or with limited English, had passed both parts of the test.

Lauress L. Wise, the project director for the evaluation, said that such data are hard to come by because California lacks a statewide student-information system, but that updated figures would be available this summer.

After seeing the report, Reed Hastings, the president of the California state school board, said he favored delaying the test for up to three years so students could be better prepared.

“Failing to graduate one-fifth of the class is not politically or legally acceptable,” he said. The state board, which heard a presentation on the report last week, has until August to make its decision.

“The report documents what we know anecdotally, which is the exit exam is driving improvement for the children who need it most: those who otherwise might have graduated without being able to read well,” said Mr. Hastings. “So the program is a huge success as a policy to get resources where they’re most needed.”

But, he added, it would take a few years for the education system to catch up with the high standards in the exam. The class of 2005 is already passing the test at higher rates than the class of 2004, Mr. Hastings said, “so I’m confident that if we delay, we will only ever have to delay once.”

The study, by the Alexandria, Va.-based Human Resources Research Organization, is based on a survey of principals and teachers in a representative sample of 298 California high schools and 173 middle schools that feed into those high schools.

Supplementing those data were visits to a smaller sample of 62 schools. The researchers also analyzed passing rates for each of the state’s 1,843 high schools and used those results to assess the effectiveness of standards-based instruction.

The study found that, at the high school level, coverage of the state’s content standards has increased dramatically in the past five years. In 1999, only about 20 percent of the schools reported covering at least three-quarters of the standards. By this year, more than 80 percent of schools reported going through all that material.

Schools that moved early to align their courses with the standards had passing rates on the exams of 75 percent or greater, the study found. Still, it shows that half the state’s high schools have passing rates below 50 percent in math.

Balancing Tensions

California high schools have added a number of remedial and supplemental courses to help students who have failed the tests, the study found. But more than half the teachers of such courses surveyed—and 72 percent of those teaching special education students— reported that most of their students lacked the prerequisite skills to benefit from such classes.

“The state of California is inflicting an exam upon kids without adequately preparing them with the materials that need to be taught in order to succeed on the exam,” said Melissa Kasnitz, of the Oakland, Calif.- based Disability Rights Advocates.

“That’s true for all students,” said the lawyer, whose group has filed suit to bar the test as a graduation requirement for students with special needs, “but it’s especially true for the special education students who have the lowest passage rate of any identified group in the state.”

Passing rates from the most recent administrations of the test will be available by July, the earliest point at which the state board is likely to act.

“The tension in making this decision is how do we preserve the good that has come from the policy, in terms of keeping schools focused, while still ensuring fairness for kids,” said Suzanne Tacheny, a member of the board.

“We’ve got to make this decision and have it be firm,” said Ms. Tacheny, who is also the executive director of the California Business for Education Excellence Foundation, based in Sacramento. “That’s something we’re all clear about.”

‘Slap in the Face’

In Massachusetts, where the testing requirement has been a continuing source of controversy, the House voted 117-37 last week to grant the first major exception to the graduation rule.

The amendment, approved over the opposition of such leading Democrats as Speaker of the House Thomas M. Finneran and Rep. Marie P. St. Fleur, the chairwoman of the education committee, would permit districts to award diplomas to students with special needs who fulfill local graduation requirements, even if they have not passed the test.

Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll called the bill “counterproductive” and said it would detract from the value of the high school diploma.

“Today, more than 70 percent of our students with special needs have already met our graduation standard,” he said, “up from just 30 percent in 2001. This is an accomplishment we would never have seen if those students had not been held to the same standard as their peers by courageous adults who understand that when you hold students to a reasonable standard, and provide them with the support they need, they rise to the occasion.”

Of the approximately 60,800 students in the class of 2003, just over 91 percent—and 72 percent of special-needs students—have already passed both portions of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. About half the approximately 900 waivers that have been granted so far to those who failed the exam were given to students with special needs.

But Rep. Alice Hanlon Peisch, the Democrat who sponsored the bill, said she did not believe the “certificate of attainment,” which the education department has proposed in lieu of a regular diploma for students with special needs who fail the test, “appropriately recognizes the work that those students have done.”

“This is really a slap in the face to those kids who have worked extra hard and have made a real effort to stay in the local public schools,” she said. “My amendment would not give a diploma to every special education student who just showed up. They would have to meet the district requirements, which up until this year has been the case.”

The House defeated an amendment that would have allowed districts to award local diplomas to all students who failed the test but fulfilled local graduation requirements.

A federal judge was scheduled this week to hear arguments on behalf of a group of students who have failed the MCAS and are seeking an injunction against its use for graduation.

Mr. Fuller of the University of California noted the difficulties surrounding special education. “We don’t want to create perverse incentives where high schools start to overidentify kids with learning disabilities just to evade high-stakes testing,” he said.

‘Special Cases’

In Florida, test results released last week show that just under 10 percent of this year’s seniors still have not passed the state graduation test, despite having had six chances to do so. This is the first year seniors must pass the math and English portions of the FCAT—as opposed to an earlier high school competency exam—to earn standard diplomas.

Legislation signed by Gov. Jeb Bush this spring waives the testing requirement for students with disabilities whose individual education plans indicate that the FCAT cannot accurately measure their abilities even with special accommodations, as long as they meet other graduation standards.

Another bill, awaiting the Republican governor’s signature, would direct the state education department to study whether scores on such tests as the SAT, the ACT, and the College Placement Test can be determined to be equivalent to those on the FCAT. If so, the bill would authorize the state board of education to permit students to use scores on those exams to meet the graduation requirement, starting with the class of 2004. The language is part of a larger measure to create a seamless K-20 accountability system in the Sunshine State.

“I think that the FCAT is a high-stakes test that, in some instances, is not culturally sensitive to the children of Florida,” said Sen. Frederica Wilson, a Democrat who was a sponsor of both bills. “You cannot use one single assessment to measure the success or failure of each individual child.”

Jill Bratina, a spokeswoman for Gov. Bush, said he “remains committed to the accountability system and to the FCAT as a means of measuring student achievement.” But the governor understands that “there might be very, very special cases” where the requirement is inappropriate, she said.

In addition to the law exempting some students with disabilities from the graduation rule, she noted, Mr. Bush supported a bill that would have provided some flexibility for students with limited English proficiency. (“Graduation Requirements Put Gov. Bush to the Test,” April 23, 2003.)

Meanwhile, the Florida test results released last week also show that more 3rd graders than ever before (63 percent) received passing scores on the FCAT, although up to 23 percent still scored low enough to risk repeating a grade. Under the state promotion policy, pupils must pass the reading portion of the test to move up to grade 4, although some exceptions are allowed.

“We continue to see real progress,” Gov. Bush said in releasing the results, “but the number of students scoring at Level 1 shows we still have much work to do.”


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