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GRADUATION DAY FOR MANY, JUST ANOTHER DAY FOR OTHERS: Students, States Feel the Pressure of Exit Exams

"withstand a legal challenge brought by students who contend they lacked adequate resources, such as qualified teachers, to help them learn the material on the exam."

Throughout this month, high school graduates from around the country will walk across stages in their high school auditoriums, gymnasiums, and football stadiums to receive their high school diplomas. However, hundreds of thousands of students will be left behind. These students can be divided into two groups: those who drop out and those who fail to pass state-mandated exit exams. Currently, 24 states either require students to pass an exit exam before receiving a high school diploma or have such tests currently in the works. Already, several states have considered postponing the testing requirement as part of receiving a high school diploma, while others are reevaluating the difficulty of the test itself.

Massachusetts’ Schools Try to Navigate Around Testing Requirements

When it first passed its 1993 Education Reform Act, the Massachusetts legislature decided to require students, beginning with the class of 2003, to pass the 10th-grade Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exam in order to graduate. Now, 10 years later, approximately 5,000 of the state’s 60,000 high school seniors will fail this year’s MCAS. As a result, some high schools in Massachusetts have navigated a path around the testing requirement while others have threatened to ignore it completely. At Hampshire Regional High School, all students who meet the school’s other requirements for graduation will get a diploma. Technically, however, these students will not graduate unless they pass the MCAS. Other schools have decided that any student who meets all other graduation requirements but fails the test will be issued a “certificate of attainment,” a document that may be considered of little value to college admission officers and future employers.

Nevada Students Struggle with Math Test

In Nevada, approximately 12 percent of the state’s senior class will not receive high school diplomas this spring because they have not passed the math portion of the state’s high school graduation test. In Clark County, NV, which includes Las Vegas, 13 percent of high school seniors have not passed the state test. According to an article in The Washington Post the problem is twofold: “Many students-as many as 40 percent statewide-have never taken algebra or geometry, which are included on the test. Also, school officials said, the fast-growing and financially strapped school district struggles to find qualified math teachers.”

State Officials in Florida and California Come Under Pressure as Thousands of Students Fail State Tests

Across around the country, state legislators have come under intense pressure to delay testing requirements. In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush released results of the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test in the face of protests from minority leaders who believe the exam should not determine who graduates. Approximately 12,800 of Florida’s high school seniors, many of them either black or Hispanic, have yet to meet the requirements of the exam. In a move perhaps designed to placate his opponents, Gov. Bush last week signed a measure that directs the state Board of Education to study whether performance on national standardized tests like the SAT and the ACT can be substituted for passing the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Legislators in California have gone one step further. Last week, the state Assembly passed a bill that would postpone California’s high school exit exam requirement for two years. Although passing a state exam for math and English-language skills is not a requirement until next year, a state-mandated study recently found that only 60 percent of students in the class of 2004 have passed the math portion so far. According to the Los Angeles Times, legislators are concerned about whether the exam could “withstand a legal challenge brought by students who contend they lacked adequate resources, such as qualified teachers, to help them learn the material on the exam.” The legislation must still pass through the state Senate and be signed by Gov. Gray Davis.

Virginia Governor Launches Program to Help Students Pass State Tests

Last week, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner announced the launch of a new program that would help thousands of Virginia high school students who risk failing the state’s Standards of Learning (SOL) test. The program includes summer academies to coach students in rural Southside Virginia, Internet tutorial programs, a long-distance learning program, and an expansion of a program that helps to manage student cases individually. The initiative will be financed with $400,000 in federal funds and will begin as several pilot programs. If it is successful, it will expand statewide in the coming months.

Lack of Federal Funds at State Level Means Little Help for High School Students

Nationally, a common theme has emerged as states struggle with high school exit exams. High school students are not being properly prepared to meet new high standards and as a result are failing to graduate. In some cases, the problem stems from a shortage of high-quality teachers, in others, students’ an inability to read at grade level. Whatever the cause, money may be the answer in addressing the issue of already high dropout rates and an increasing number of students who stay in high school only to fail graduation tests.

While some states are scrambling to get their students ready for new exit exams, the federal government has done little, if anything, to be supportive. Indeed, there are only a few federal programs that focus on high school reform or on helping middle and high school students prepare for college. The Smaller Learning Communities initiative provides $162 million per year to help large high schools develop smaller schools within a larger school, but funding for this program has been eliminated in the President’s budget request.

In addition, the long-established TRIO program and the newly established GEAR UP initiative seek to help young people graduate from high school and get on the path to college. However, the TRIO program, despite its record of success, currently serves only about 10 percent of eligible young people. Other federal funds are available through the Carl Perkins Vocational Act for secondary schools, but these funds are also cut in the President’s budget request. Presently, there is no specific formula-driven program that targets students most in need of help at the high school level except the woefully underfunded Title I program-and even then, only 5 percent of all Title I funds reach high school students.

With few federal dollars going to high schools, many districts are having a difficult time providing the support services that some students need to help them pass these high-stakes exit exams. Without additional help, some states, as the California example proves, may be forced to delay the enforcement of their testing requirement, or perhaps lower the standard to which they hold their students.

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.