Confronted with warnings that large numbers of Tennessee high school students could fail state tests needed to earn a diploma next year, state education leaders are trying to figure out how to avoid the mass failures and the political fallout that would ensue.
The state board of education has endorsed measures to help students pass the tests, including requiring vocational education students to take core academic classes, expanding dropout-prevention programs, and providing better support programs in the early grades.
But the board is also considering the more controversial step of allowing other, “equally rigorous” options for receiving a diploma if a student fails one or more of the high-stakes tests given in mathematics, language arts, and science.
A report commissioned by the Tennessee Department of Education shows that in some districts, as many as half of the students have not passed or taken the three tests, which are usually given in the 9th or 10th grade. The requirement will take effect for next year’s graduating class.
“We’re concerned especially with kids that are economically disadvantaged, are in special education, or are English-language learners,” said Douglas E. Wood, the executive director of the state board of education. “I think there is going to be a fallout unless we address this issue through policy changes.”
Mr. Wood, who wrote the recent report, said that it was important for the state to allow not only special education students, but also other students, necessary accommodations for taking the tests—such as more time or private rooms—and an appeals process if they fail to pass the tests on the first try. Even if the board allows other options for earning a diploma, all students will still be required to take the tests, he said.
Under current policy, students are to receive certificates of attendance, not diplomas, if they fail the exams.
In the coming months, Mr. Wood and state board members will hold public meetings to hear reaction to the recommendation to allow other measurements of student performance—such as scores on college-entrance exams or end-of-course tests—to count in awarding diplomas.
On Jan. 30, the state board approved four of the five recommendations in the report, including a requirement that school districts offer research-based interventions to students scoring below the proficient level on the state’s tests in the 3rd, 5th, and 8th grades. The board will also examine districts’ current testing accommodations and teacher training to use them.
‘The Big Concern’
In addition, the board will research whether to require all students to take core academic subjects. Currently, students follow either a college-bound academic route or a vocational route. “We’re not getting rid of voc ed—we’re trying to strengthen the core curriculum,” Mr. Wood said.
Some Tennessee district officials applauded the board’s decision to review the exam requirement.
William E. White II, the executive director of research, evaluation, and assessment for the 118,000-student Memphis district, said the state board was wise to review the issue at this point. Nearly half the system’s 11th graders have not yet passed all of the state’s three proficiency tests.
Mr. White said that Memphis was trying to improve its academic achievement, but he noted that other districts were facing large failure rates as well. “This is an issue that the state will have to deal with statewide,” he added.
Tony W. Lancaster, the executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, said that many educators had worried that the high-stakes testing system would result in widespread failures when the requirement was adopted in 1998.
“When we made the changes to go to high-stakes testing, educators felt deep in their hearts that there are going to be some problems down the road, but we didn’t have any numbers to back that up,” he said.
For the Memphis district, a preliminary study predicts that only 43 percent of economically disadvantaged students would pass all three exams, and 62.4 percent of the nondisadvantaged students would pass.
Mr. Lancaster supports giving students an alternative to the tests for earning their diplomas.
“The big concern all of us have is, if you take a student who has invested 12 years of life in an education and they don’t make it in that one test, we have basically doomed them to a life of failure,” he said.