Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Politics of Exit Exams

The Baltimore Sun looks at the politics and perils of high school exit exams--the chance that some kids won't pass.
Maryland isn't the first state to have second thoughts about denying diplomas to thousands of high school kids who can't pass state tests.

As the graduation deadline grew near, Washington state delayed requiring its math exam. Utah dropped the testing requirement altogether. In Massachusetts, the teachers union mounted an ad campaign against the tests - though the state held firm.

And in California, parents got angry and filed a class action suit. Students still have to pass the tests to get a diploma, but they can stay in high school for up to six years if that's what it takes.

Across the nation, state leaders have gotten nervous as the date approaches to deny high school diplomas. They have agonized over what to do, though in the end, only Utah has decided to do away with the requirement.

"States realize that they have set standards that kids simply aren't able to meet ... or the failure rates are simply too high politically," said Jay Heubert, a professor at the Teachers College, Columbia University.
So the question that is asked by policy makers is not "What should we do to help each kid pass the test as written?" but the question becomes "What can we do to get around the exit exam requirement so that I can look tough on standards without actually holding everyone accountable?"

These are two very different questions. One is a question about education and pedagogy, the other is about political CYA and unfortunately the latter does nothing to help kids.

In Maryland,
State data released last month showed that 68 percent of students in the Class of 2009 have passed the English exam. In Baltimore, 41 percent have passed. Statewide, there was a 77 percent pass rate on the algebra, 71 percent on government and 62 percent on biology.

In concept, making sure that all high school graduates are at least competent in a few basic subjects is easy for politicians to embrace. Maryland began planning more than a decade ago for high school assessments in many subjects. The testing requirement was supposed to take effect for the Class of 2007 but was delayed until 2009.

Then last month, after hearing complaints, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick proposed that students who fail the tests three times be allowed to do a senior project instead. Grasmick said it would be a rigorous assignment designed for only a few thousand students a year.

Under Maryland's current rule, students also can get a diploma by getting a minimum composite score on the four tests. And for special-education students and those with testing anxiety, a different but "comparable" test is now being tried out in three districts.
Under the Maryland program, the exams are given to students after they take the relevant class. English is at the 10th grade level.

The problem of course is that people are making all kinds of excuses for the kids. Everything for English as as Second Language (ESL) students to kids with "test anxiety" are going to get a pass from the exam requirement. While federal law requires states make accomodations for students with verified disabilities, my fear is that test anxiety will become a disability and that means they will probably get a pass.

No one seems to be asking an important but relevant question. What is the reason why kids are failing the tests? I find it difficult to believe that an average of 30% of students haven't passed the tests (statewide) without a reason. Do we even know what kids are missing on the tests? Assuming such an analysis has been done as to which questions are being missed, what is the cause. With 66,000 students in the class of 2009, surely there must be some statistical pointers.

Another relevant question might be how well does the test match up with the curriculum? One could easily assume that the two match, but that may not be the case at all.

The answers to these questions should lead to either a better curriculum or a better test. But we cannot and should not allow ourselves to be led down the path of softening the requirement. Sure, it is politically scary to be looking at 2,000 to 3,000 students and telling them they won't graduate because they haven't passed the requisite tests. Even scarier is the prospect of looking their parents in the eye and saying the same thing.

Make no mistake, the finger pointing is going to be ugly. But the blame rests not only on teh students, but on their schools, their teachers and their politicians. The parents are not without their share of the blame, either. But no one should escape accountability and letting the students off the hook allows them and everyone else to escape the consequences of their failure and no one has learned a thing.

For all the states with an exit exam, when it was developed, it was easy as there were no human faces associated with the failure of the exam or the failure of the policy. Now we as citizens are looking at both squarely. If you are going to have an exit exam and spend millions to develop it, you can't simply scrap it because the price is suddenly too high. Either it was a good policy to begin with or it is not. If state policy makers think it is a bad idea, they should say so instead of trying to end run around the problem by granting some dispensation because a kid can't pass the test. In either case, we must take responsibility.

We will do better in the long run by failing these kids now and figuring why they are passing rather than to give them a pass.

1 comment:

loonyhiker said...

Another scary factor is that special ed students in my state can ask for acommodations on the exit exam because they have a disability. As a special ed teacher, I get to read the reading test aloud to them. As much as I want my students to have a fair shot, even I think this is getting ridiculous! Either they can pass like everyone else or they can't. They need the acommodations in class so they can learn on the same playing field as the other students but not on the test! What are we testing then?