States drop exams, give retroactive diplomas

States are dropping exit exams and giving retroactive high school diplomas to former students who never passed the exam, reports Catherine Gewertz in Education Week.

Georgia, Texas and South Carolina have issued thousands of diplomas to people who passed high school courses but failed the exit exam.In California, 35,000 or more people could qualify for diplomas. Arizona and Alaska also will issue retroactive diplomas.

Misty Hatcher is working toward a degree as a networking specialist at Lanier Technical College in Oakwood, Ga. --Melissa Golden for Education Week

Misty Hatcher, who received a retroactive diploma, is working toward a networking degree at Lanier Technical College in Oakwood, Ga. Photo: Melissa Golden, Education Week

“States are eliminating comprehensive tests in math and English/language arts in favor of end-of-course tests or other measures of high school achievement,” reports Gewertz. Many argue exit exams are “useless because they’re often pegged to 8th- or 9th-grade-level skills.”

That is, the exit exams were too easy.

California dropped its exam because it wasn’t aligned to Common Core State Standards. That is, it was too easy.

So people who couldn’t pass a test of eighth- and ninth-grade skills will receive high school diplomas.

Only 13 states still require students to pass an exit exam to earn a diploma, down from 25 in 2012, according to Jennifer Zinth of Education Commission of the States. Some states are now dropping end-of-course exams too.

They’re too hard.

Hanna Frank, Education Post’s social media manager, threw away her high school diploma, knowing she hadn’t earned it. She took remedial courses at her local community college, using up most of her financial aid, and managed to earn a bachelor’s degree in five years.

Not everyone hates tests

Test-bashing may be fashionable but two new polls show considerable support for testing by teachers, students and the public, writes Jill Barshay in Hechinger’s Education By The Numbers.
Source: NWEA

Graduation exams are backed by 77 percent of teachers and 86 percent of the public, according to Teachers versus the Public. “Accountability is one of the issues where the public and teachers agree,” said author Paul Peterson, a Harvard education professor. (Here’s more on the book.)

Ninety-four percent of students agree that tests are important for understanding what they are learning, according to a survey by Northwest Evaluation Association, a non-profit test designer.

In 2011, 60 percent of teachers said too much time was spent on test prep and test taking. In 2013, only 53 percent of teachers thought too much student time was devoted to testing.

“Formative assessment is shown to have the most positive impact on teaching and learning, yet it’s least understood and not widely practiced,” concludes the report. Only 29 percent of teachers correctly identified a definition of formative assessment. (Checking for understanding in order to modify teaching.) Most could not identify summative or diagnostic assessment either.

States link exit exams to college readiness

Eight states have linked high-school exit exams to college-readiness standards such as Common Core and 10 more plan to do so.

After collecting $105,000 in student loans and grants to attend community college, a Pennsylvania man faces fraud charges. The college he allegedly attended would have cost less than $16,000 for a full-time student over three years.

How to raise graduation rates

What can we do to stem the tide of dropouts and help more students earn a high school diploma? The Hechinger Report and the Washington Monthly look at three cities that have tried to improve low graduation rates.

All three cities have taken remarkably similar approaches to the problem. Those approaches fall into two general categories: fixing existing low-performing high schools, often by breaking them into smaller schools; and creating alternative schools and programs—“multiple pathways,” in the jargon of the trade—that cater to the diverse needs of those kids who are on the verge of dropping out or already have done so.

New York City, which has created many small schools, has made significant progress.

Philadelphia is also improving, though not as dramatically.

Portland, Oregon, with more white and middle-class students, has made no progress at all. The city sends 20 percent of students to alternative schools with lots of support and very low expectations. Very few earn a diploma.

Also in the package: Small schools are beautiful — if they have real autonomy, good teaching and high standards, writes Thomas Toch. He also has a piece on the challenge of lowering the drop-out rate while raising academic standards.

Only between 70 and 75 percent of students who enter high school graduate, and, of those who do, less than half of them are college ready. Forty percent of community college freshman and 20 percent of students entering four-year colleges have to take remedial classes.

Twenty-four states now require graduation exams which typically test eighth-grade math concepts and tenth-grade language arts skills. Nineteen of the states grant waivers to students who cannot pass the test.

Next year, the U.S. Education Department will require states to use a uniform method of calculating dropout rates: the numbers are expected to go way up. That will give states and districts even more incentive to lower graduation requirements, Toch writes.

Schools can identify high-risk students.

If they get to struggling students early, schools can assign them tutors and mentors and closely monitor their attendances and grades. Researchers also point to another key to staving off higher dropout rates: creating a culture of high expectations in lagging high schools. When teachers and students believe in the importance of high standards and share a commitment to reaching them, much can be accomplished.

But it’s not easy to pull off, especially in large, impersonal high schools.


States create alternate exits

States are creating alternate pathways to graduation for students who can’t pass high school exit exams, reports the Center on Education Policy. Most offer alternatives for disabled students; some also exempt students who aren’t fluent in English. Pass rates have improved in most states. Many more states are using their exit exams to meet NCLB’s high school testing requirements.