No matter how hard she tried, Edona Harrison-Williams could not pass the South Carolina high school exit exam.
She was already in cap and gown, preparing to walk across the stage during the 2002 commencement at W.J. Keenan High School, when she learned she had failed a section of the exam known as HSAP, the High School Assessement Program, which tests for math and English language proficiency.
“I didn’t know until graduation day that I was to be given the certificate,” Harrison-Williams, 31, said. “They didn’t tell me until the last minute that I didn’t pass the math part.”
The news was devastating.
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Instead of a diploma, Harrison-Williams said, she received a certificate of completion, derailing her dream of going to college.
Now, the South Carolina legislature’s decision to eliminate the HSAP opens the door for Harrison-Williams and others like her to finally claim a diploma. Under Act 155, those who were denied a diploma solely for failing to pass the exit test may petition their local school districts to receive a diploma. The law is retroactive to the class of 1990; the deadline for submitting a petition is Dec. 31, 2015.
In Richland 1 alone, more than 100 students have petitioned for the diploma and there has been a smattering of interest in other districts. Local school boards will determine that the former student has met all other graduation requirements. The petitions will then be forwarded to the state Department of Education, which will print the diplomas.
Lawmakers say there was momentum to eliminate the test and put in place assessments that will better identify areas of academic strength and weakness. The HSAP has been in place since 2004, but before that students took the BSAP, the Basic Skills Assessment Program.
“We have replaced it with an 11th grade test, work keys and college readiness, that educators say will do a lot more good for the students, future employers and colleges,” said S.C. Sen. Wes Hayes, a Rock Hill Republican who serves on the Senate Education Committee and heads a standing committee on K-12. There also will be new assessments in grades 3-8, according to the state Department of Education.
The new scenario was backed by the education establishment, so there was little opposition to abolishing the test, Hayes said. The proliferation of end-of-course tests also provide more real-time analysis of students’ proficiency in subjects.
The exit exam initially was put into place because employers were concerned about the quality of the workforce.
“What we were hearing was that people were applying for jobs who couldn’t read and write,” Hayes said. “That exit exam was a way to make sure nobody slips through, but there are other measures now to keep people from slipping through the program.” But he said too often HSAP was eliminating capable students who simply could not pass a high-stakes test.
That was Harrison-William’s problem. Stress, nerves – and geometry – got the best of her as she attempted to retake it year after year. She passed her high school math courses – just barely – and now wishes she had applied herself more in high school.
“I can’t even count” how many attempts she made on the HSAP, she said. “I know I took it on numerous occasions.”
Life went on. She married a C.A. Johnson High School graduate, Walter Williams, and started a catering business, Triple J’s Catering, named for her three children, Jeremiah, 10, JaNyah, 5, and Jaliyah, 3.
Last year, she worked with a tutor, a friend of her family’s, who told her to turn over her stress to God and take her time on the test.
She came within a few points of passing.
“I was determined to keep going and keep going until I passed,” she said.
When she learned in April that Gov. Nikki Haley had signed Act 155, Harrison-Williams called the S.C. Department of Education and then Richland 1, where she was among the first to apply to receive her high school diploma.
Now, the 31-year-old Harrison-Williams is preparing to pursue her dream of going to college, perhaps studying education or exploring the hotel, restaurant and tourism management major at the University of South Carolina. She would love to go full-time but may start out with a few classes.
Districts already are hearing from petitioners.
“This is by far one of the best assignments I’ve had,” said Jennifer Coleman, executive director of Richland 1’s Accountability, Assessment, Research and Evaluation (AARE) Office.
As Richland 1 alumni call or come by, they reveal that the long-sought diploma will finally open the door to college and technical studies that had been denied.
“It makes a big difference to them not only from a career perspective but also for themselves,” Coleman said. “If granting Act 155 allows them to pursue their goals and ambitions that is a good thing.”
“With the legislation, we will get a new series of assessements,” Coleman said. “We will have the ability to know where students are.”
‘I’m still excited’
Pickens County Rep. Phil Owens, earlier said his decision to introduce the bill to eliminate the exam was rooted in a Greenville constituent’s plea. The constituent had three sons, one with a learning disability that prevented him from passing the math portion of the test.
Although the young man had passed all of his high school classes, he could only obtain a certificate of completion rather than the coveted diploma. Without the diploma, he could not follow his brothers into tech school or college.
Twenty-five states require that students pass an exit exam before graduating and receiving a diploma. But some states are reconsidering the requirement or, like South Carolina, replacing it with tests that are aimed at assessing proficiency for college or jobs.
The exit exams have endured legal challenges, most broadly in California, Arizona and Utah. Utah, which had adopted an exit exam requirement in 1999, changed its policy in 2006. Instead of withholding diplomas, the state decided to grant diplomas to all students who met other graduation requirements even if they failed the exam, but to include a notation on the diploma saying whether the student had passed the exam.
Hayes said he is confident the new system will work.
“I’m a strong believer in the assessment and accountability system,” Hayes said. “And if I felt this was hurting our assessment and accountability system I wouldn’t support it.”
For Harrison-Williams, the legislature’s action will allow her to reach her full potential. She said she wants to be a good role model for her children, to encourage them to be more focused in school than she was and to set life goals.
“I’ve given them the idea to stick with it,” she said. “I told them ‘I want you to be greater than I was.’”
Now, she said, she has the opportunity to illustrate what it is like to reach for a dream.
“I’m still excited, can’t wait, it has been almost 12 years,” Harrison-Williams said. “I believe that God opened the door for me to able to receive it.”