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May 15, 2013

SC high school graduation exit exam could be history

Bill passed by SC House would end exit exam requirement to graduate high school; measure now goes to Senate. Should the exit exam be killed? Take our survey.

Should SC do away with the exit exam requirement for graduating high school seniors? Take our survey at the bottom of this story

Exit exam scores at Darlington High School are rolling in this week, said principal Greg Harrison, bringing difficult news to some seniors.

“Breaking that news to them – that they didn’t pass it and they aren’t going to walk (at graduation) – it’s an emotional time,” Harrison said.

But S.C high school students would no longer have to pass an exit exam to graduate if a state House bill becomes law – welcome news for the thousands of students who struggle year after year to pass both the test’s math and English sections.

A bill, sponsored by state Rep. Phil Owens, R-Easley, would allow seniors who have earned 24 course credits to receive a high school diploma regardless of how they perform on the exit exam.

About 3,800 students could not graduate in 2012 because they failed to pass the test, said Jay Ragley, spokesman for S.C. Schools Superintendent Mick Zais.

Students who fail the exam, but have earned enough course credits otherwise to graduate, now are entitled only to a certificate of attendance. That is not a fair representation of their achievements, Rep. Owens said.

“To put the entire success or failure of that one child in one test ... is unfair,” Owens said, comparing it to deciding who wins an entire round of golf by who wins the 18th hole.

Owens’ bill, which passed the House, is now in the Senate Education Committee. However, with only three weeks left in this year’s legislative session, the Senate is not likely to take up the proposal until next January.

Zais supports Owens’ bill.

There also is wide agreement among lawmakers, state education officials and educators that the state should eliminate the test because, they say, it does not adequately measure students’ preparation for college or for today’s work force.

But because the test is used to determine whether S.C schools and school districts meet state and federal accountability standards, students still would be required to take the exam.

Some fear eliminating the test as a graduation requirement while retaining it for accountability standards – used by state and federal officials to measure the quality of education being delivered by individual schools and school districts -- will make it an exam with no consequences for some students, who, test takers say, will have no incentive to try to do well.

“Nobody’s going to try to pass a test if they think, ‘Oh, I don’t have to pass this,’” said Darlington High School junior Racheal Griffis.

No reason to try

Some educators are concerned that student disinterest in the test will lead to dropping test scores – reflecting lower-than-actual student achievement, and reflecting poorly on teachers and administrators.

“If you’re going to judge a school” by measures that are considered reliable, “they need to come from a reliable test,” said Harrison, the high school principal.

Students at Darlington High school share the opinion that students may stop trying on the exam if they know it does not count toward their graduation.

“I personally would not even take it that seriously,” said senior Gregory Pappas, who is graduating in the top 10 of his class. “I would look at it and be thinking about how long I had left to sit there.”

The S.C. Association of School Administrators would like the test abolished if it is no longer going to count toward graduation.

“We don’t have a problem with taking away a requirement if you take away the test,” said Beth Phibbs of the association.

But, as long as education officials are using the exam to measure how schools and school systems are performing, it also should be used as a graduation exam, the association says.

Otherwise, said Phibbs, “We have a test where it’s tied to federal accountability, but there’s no accountability tied to the students.”

Looking for better tests

Owens’ bill would create a committee to determine if something better could be put in the exit exam’s place to meet accountability standards – underscoring concerns the test has outlived its usefulness as an accurate measure of student achievement.

The state put its first high school exit exam in place in 1986, replacing it in 2004 with the current, more rigorous test, said Melanie Barton, director of the Education Oversight Committee, the state agency that conducts education policy research and makes recommendations.

In the ’80s, “kids were leaving high schools in our state who couldn’t read or write,” said Barton. “It (the exit exam) sets a minimum level of competency that we expect.”

But, now, students need a better test of their readiness for college and the work force, Barton said. Following a state like North Carolina, where high school students take multiple assessments that gauge readiness for college and work, could be an answer for South Carolina, she said.

A new statewide test is coming in 2015 called the Smarter Balance, Education Department spokesman Ragley said. That test or current end-of-course tests that students take after a class, whether Algebra 1 or English 1, could replace the exit exam as the test used for federal and state accountability standards, he said.

Struggling to pass

For some parents and students, the end of the exit exam cannot come quickly enough.

Teresa Martin’s now 22-year-old son has taken the exit exam at least 13 times, trying to pass the math section, said the sixth-grade math teacher in the Orangeburg Consolidated District 4 school system. Her son has come close to passing but never succeeded, she said, adding he has a learning disability that makes math difficult.

Martin’s son finished high school in 2010 and, in hopes of passing the exit exam and getting a diploma, has been attending a class at Orangeburg Technical College with students preparing for the exit exam and the GED, a high-school equivalency test that high-school dropouts take, she said.

Focusing on passing the exit exam for so long has been frustrating, Martin said.

Her son could reach his goals with a GED, Martin said, but that would require preparing for a new test and taking a route that overlooks his high school achievements.

“To take the GED after completing high school is kind of a slap in the face.”

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