High School Exit Exams Hold Promise and Peril


State graduation exams and their ill effects continue to spur calls
for change, and some actual movement, in Washington, Ohio, and
Pennsylvania. The good news is a growing recognition of the damaging
consequences from these graduation tests. It’s unclear from preliminary
efforts, however, whether exit exams will be replaced with superior
assessments or simply other tests that are equally onerous and

For example, a growing trend toward end-of-course exams could be a
positive development if limits are placed on the weight of the tests
and the exams are superior to the current mostly multiple-choice tests.
Tennessee, for example, says the test results will count as 25% of the required course grades -- but they remain mostly multiple-choice.

In November, Washington voters elected a new
state superintendent of public instruction, Randy Dorn, based largely
on his promise to replace the current state tests with ones that are
more useful, less expensive and less cumbersome. Within a month of
taking office, Dorn announced his plans to dump the Washington
Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), the tests used both for school
accountability and as exit exams. The Everett, WA, Daily Herald
reported, “[Dorn has] won plenty of applause from teachers and parents
sick of the WASL and ready for change.”

Dorn announced a plan for a new set of computerized tests of
reading, writing, math and science by 2012. With students taking the
tests on computers, Dorn expects the results will be available within
two weeks of testing much more quickly than with the paper and pencil

Parents and teachers are also pushing to eliminate the state's
graduation exams, but Dorn says seniors will still have to pass reading
and writing tests, or an alternative, to graduate. (He wants to delay
the math test requirement until 2014.)

Juanita Doyon, director of the Washington statewide Parent Empowerment Network,
gives Dorn good marks for his first steps. “Besides making plans to
replace WASL, he has begun his term by taking on some of the unintended
consequences of the myriad of WASL regulations.… Superintendent Dorn
has put a stop to 9th graders taking the 10th grade WASL, saving state
taxpayers half a million dollars! This is a good start.

Replacing WASL may be an improvement, but Dorn's proposal would
appear to perpetuate the use of mostly multiple-choice high-stakes
tests for state and federal accountability, as well as the exit exams.
However, he and some legislators also have expressed interest in
strengthening local and classroom-based assessments, potentially
leading to a higher-quality assessment system.

Ohio may scrap its current graduation test. Governor
Ted Strickland has proposed that students complete end-of-course
examinations, write a senior thesis, take the ACT college entrance
exam, and complete a community-service project instead. Students would
reportedly have to earn a certain composite score on all the
assessments to earn a high-school diploma. Composite scoring systems
allow a student to offset weak results in one subject or form of
assessment with strong results on another. This could ensure that one
or two points on a single test would not prevent any student from
graduating in Ohio. The state also continues work on developing
alternative assessments (see Examiner, July 2008).

In Pennsylvania, a pitched battle over a proposed new battery of high school exit exams continues (see Examiner, December 2008). 
In early March, a key ally in the fight against graduation tests, the
Pennsylvania School Board Association, reached a compromise with the
Pennsylvania Department of Education that allows use of the tests or
locally developed alternatives approved by the state. However, other
organizations, including the Pennsylvania State Education Association,
vowed to continue the battle, and there remained significant opposition
in the state legislature.

One bone of contention is that, despite a state law imposing a
one-year moratorium on the development of the "Graduation Competency
Assessments," the Department of Education has solicited bids for test
development. At a February hearing before the Senate Education
Committee, Senator Jane Orie accused Education Secretary Gerald
Zahorchak of disregarding the law.  Orie has introduced legislation to
give the Legislature sole authority to impose new statewide graduation
requirements. "Pennsylvania does not have the money in this economic
climate to create a new, unproven program," Orie said. Zahorchak
replied that the tests will be used regardless of whether they are exit

FairTest testimony at the hearing documented exit exams’ negative
consequences around the nation: “The problems exit exams are meant to
solve are real… For too many students, the cure is worse than the
disease. Rather than ensure better education and expanded
opportunities, graduation tests add punishment - denial of a diploma -
to those who most need help.” FairTest’s full testimony is available
here: http://www.fairtest.org/testimony-lisa-guisbond-pa-senate-ed-committee.



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