College & Workforce Readiness

Utah to Give Diplomas to Students Who Fail State Exit Exam

By Lynn Olson — January 24, 2006 3 min read
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Utah students can receive a high school diploma even if they fail to pass all portions of the state’s exit test, but those diplomas will specify that the students haven’t passed the exam.

That decision by the state board of education, made Jan. 12, comes as a growing number of states are grappling with whether to hold firm on high school graduation requirements even as many students fail to pass graduation exams. Earlier this month, California’s schools chief announced that he would not support any alternatives to that state’s exit exam, which students must pass starting in June. (“Calif. Schools Chief Sticks by Exit-Exam Requirement,” Jan. 18, 2006.)

Utah law requires students, starting with this year’s graduating class, to pass the mathematics, reading, and writing portions of the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test to receive a basic high school diploma. About 16 percent of seniors, or 5,710 students, still have not passed one or more portions of the test, according to figures released by the state office of education last week.

The biggest stumbling block is the math portion of the exam. About 11 percent of white students, 36 percent of Black students, 37 percent of Hispanic students, 64 percent of students with disabilities, and 42 percent of English-language learners in the class of 2006 have yet to pass that portion of the test.

The state had planned to offer two types of diplomas: a “basic” diploma to students who had met state and local course requirements and passed all portions of the test, and an “alternative completion” diploma to students who had met all other requirements but did not pass the test after at least three attempts.

Special education students who took the state’s alternate assessment also would have been eligible for the alternative diploma.

But the state school board decided to drop the wording that would differentiate one type of diploma from another, after an opinion from the Utah attorney general’s office cautioned that students who received an alternative-completion diploma might not be eligible for college aid under the federal Pell Grant program.

To be eligible for the need-based aid, students must have a standard high school diploma or a General Educational Development certificate, or pass an approved “ability-to-benefit test.”

Mark H. Spencer, the associate commissioner for finance and facilities for the Utah System of Higher Education, said the system had asked the state board for a “clear definition” of the diploma requirements because “ ‘basic’ sounded like kind of the lowest you could get.”

Transcripts Key

But while the nomenclature has changed, said Myron Cottam, Utah’s associate state superintendent for student achievement and school success, diplomas will still specify whether students have passed the basic-skills competency exam or not, “and this information should be on the transcripts anyway, so universities, colleges, and postsecondary people will be able to look at the transcripts and see where everyone is at.”

Mr. Spencer said that in either case, students would be accepted for admission to the state’s open-enrollment colleges.

“For institutions that are more restrictive, like our research universities, they have other criteria anyway, so they’re not really impacted by this decision,” he said.

Utah students take the test beginning in the spring of 10th grade. Students have multiple opportunities to retake any portions of the exam they failed. Students in the class of 2006 have one more chance to take the test, between Jan. 31 and Feb. 2, before graduation.

As many as 70 seniors in the Murray city school district still have not passed all portions of the exam, estimated Steven K. Hirase, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the 6,400-student district, southeast of Salt Lake City, which has just under 500 students in this year’s graduating class.

“Honestly, I think it’s a good decision,” he said of the board’s vote to offer only one type of diploma. “I don’t know what would have been really served by having diplomas with different names on them.”

Since last year, Murray High School has offered after-school remedial instruction to students who have yet to pass the test, and the district’s alternative high school has offered a class during the school day.

This school year, Murray High added another class during the day to help students pass the math portion of the exam, which has the highest failure rate. The district also was one of 10 that each received $10,000 from the state to pilot a remedial program. It has used the money to buy computer software and develop some online help for students.

A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2006 edition of Education Week as Utah to Give Diplomas to Students Who Fail State Exit Exam

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