Original URL: http://www.azstarnet.com/star/thu/30814NHigh-School-Exams.html

High school exit exams survive controversies
August 14, 2003

By Ben Feller

WASHINGTON - High-school graduation now hinges on exit exams for more than half of public school students, a number on the rise despite some messy consequences, a study finds.

The graduation tests have led to more rigorous courses and more help for struggling students, the Center on Education Policy study says. But they also have meant unexpected costs, greater failure rates for minorities and maybe more dropouts, the study says.

Nineteen states withhold diplomas if students don't pass tests that cover English and math, and in some cases social studies and science. Five other states are phasing in graduation tests through 2008, increasing the number of students affected to seven in 10.

"While the political rhetoric and public reaction surrounding these exams has grown, exit exams themselves appear to be on track and are, for now, here to stay," said Keith Gayler, associate director of the center, a research group that advocates for better schools.

Diploma-driven tests have been used for years, but the 2002-03 school year was the one in which many students and parents learned why the tests are often called "high stakes." Several states withheld thousands of diplomas, or prepared to do so. In some states, tests got tougher.

At times, it got messy.

New York erased the results of a new math test for juniors and seniors after the passing rate fell much lower than the previous year. Local officials got permission to give diplomas to seniors who failed the exam but passed their math courses.

California delayed the consequences of its exit exam from 2004 to 2006 after a study projected that about 20 percent of seniors would be denied diplomas. In Massachusetts, where diplomas were withheld for the first time, some students walked out of class and refused to take the test, often with support from parents, the study says.

Adjustments made to stem the outcry affected only small numbers of students, the study found. States generally kept their exams and policies intact.

"Sticking with high standards is really important," said Mike Cohen, president of Achieve, a nonprofit group that helps states in measuring how to hold students accountable.

"Our research underscores the fact that - controversies notwithstanding - the expectations in high-school exit exams are quite reasonable," Cohen said. "They don't even necessarily guarantee you're ready to do college work."

In many states, 65 percent to 85 percent of students pass on their first try. But in states that provided a breakdown of data, scores were significantly lower among blacks, Hispanics, poor students, children with disabilities and those with limited English ability.