K12 educators, lawmakers divided over graduation tests

Do exit exams in schools improve educational outcomes for students?
By: | January 27, 2017

Efforts to implement new high school graduation exams in Ohio and New Jersey are faltering, as some educators grow more concerned about the number of students struggling to meet the strict requirements.

In Ohio, more than one-third of juniors have yet to earn the scores they need from the seven exams they must pass to graduate in 2018. In New Jersey, only 9 percent of graduates last year passed the state’s new exit exam; the majority of students opted for test alternatives that are being phased out.

And lawmakers and educators across the country are deeply divided over the effectiveness of exit exams in improving educational outcomes for students.

Did you hear?

Civil rights cases resolved

A record 16,720 complaints were filed last fiscal year in the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education.

But more than 66,000 civil rights cases—over the entire eight-year Obama administration—have been resolved by the office.

“Much progress has been made in the past eight years, but much work remains to ensure all children enjoy equitable access to excellence in American education” outgoing Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said last December.

Source: National Council on Teacher Quality

The ACLU of New Jersey and the Education Law Center, a public interest law firm and advocacy group, have sued the New Jersey Department of Education over the new tests. They argue that the requirements violate state law, don’t provide much-needed alternative pathways and are unfair to English language learners.

“Exit tests don’t seem to help the kids who pass them, and seem to have a negative effect on the kids who don’t” says Stan Karp, director of the secondary reform project at the Education Law Center. “Simply measuring the problem doesn’t really resolve whatever opportunity gaps or achievement gaps exist.”

Multiple states, including California and Arizona, have dropped or suspended high school exit exams in the last two years. Other states, including Connecticut and Colorado, are in the process of implementing new testing requirements for the class of 2021.

Ohio’s curriculum shrinks

In Ohio, lawmakers voted in 2014 to replace a single exit exam with seven subject-specific tests to improve college and career readiness. Alternatively, students can take the ACT or SAT, or earn industry-recognized certifications through career tech programs that range from construction to graphic design to information technology.

But many superintendents say the change was made without their input, and there hasn’t been enough time to provide extra support that many students need to pass the seven new tests.

The new system of single subject tests is more rigorous than the previous exit exam, says Jim Lloyd, superintendent of Olmsted Falls City School District. He adds that the state’s new graduation system relies too heavily on standardized tests and needs more balance for demonstrating content knowledge.

Lloyd is part of a grassroots organization of Ohio superintendents seeking more autonomy for districts and greater input on state decisions. “Right now it’s totally test-driven. And when you have that, the curriculum shrinks” he says.

The Ohio Board of Education, which sets the passing scores for the tests, is expected to revisit graduation testing in April, after a task force studies the issue.

The board could, for instance, lower the cutoff for passing scores or implement a two-tiered diploma system, with some students earning a certificate of attendance and others a traditional diploma that certifies students are career and college ready, says Tom Gunlock, the state board president.

Scott DiMauro, vice president of the Ohio teachers’ union, wants the state to step back and discuss how to better phase in exit testing and provide students with academic supports they need to pass. “Students should not have a single test score decide whether or not they can graduate” DiMauro says