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The Costs and the Lost Benefits of Graduation Exams

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Oklahoma's law that requires students to pass four End of Instruction tests to earn a high school degree will take effect this spring. I am agnostic about those sorts of graduation exams. A blue ribbon panel of the National Research Council concluded that graduation tests have reduced their states' graduation rates by around 2%, while not improving student achievement. But most graduation exams were a result of the standardized test-driven accountability movement so, I wonder whether the damage was due to the tests, or instruction being distorted by NCLB-type accountability.

The problem is that we are holding students accountable in order to hold adult systems' feet to the fire. And we are doing so in the age of NCLB.

In my experience, most educators get tired of being the only people held accountable. So, I can understand why Oklahoma, which gave schools five years to prepare for the higher standards and adopted alternative assessments for students on special education IEPs, has required graduates to pass four tests. A student can earn a degree by merely passing freshmen and sophomore level End of Instruction exams. And, my old district, the Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS) has responded with heroic efforts to provide remediation, and offer retakes.

But, that gets to my concern about test-driven accountability for students. In my experience, most educators know that teaching to the test has been proven to be ineffective. As the Gates Foundation has shown, the best way to increase performance on standardized tests is holistic and engaging instruction, not test prep. As Robert Balfanz's Everyone Graduates Center has shown, more remediation is not the solution. At risk students need the supports necessary to allow them to study a challenging curriculum. In a rational world, the need to teach students for mastery, so they can pass End of Instruction tests, would have been a strong argument against the skin-deep instruction that has been encouraged as a way to meet NCLB requirements.

As long as administrators know that graduation exams are a part of the contemporary "culture of accountability," however, the fear of too many students failing will encourage educational malpractice. So, we risk both the sacrifice of students who will be denied a diploma in order to atone for the alleged sins of the educational "status quo," and learning the wrong lessons.

There is an effort to repeal or delay the new graduation requirements because about 16% of the state's seniors began the year needing to pass one or more of their exams. Tulsa area superintendents asked for a delay, noting that 33% of the Tulsa School System's 1,666 seniors have not passed all four of their tests. Oklahoma City's schools are 90% low income and face a tougher challenge, with around 40% of 1,300 seniors beginning the year in danger of not graduating.

The effect of the law will be more uneven within the OKCPS. The district's official Statistical Profile shows, however, that it has gotten a bum rap. Our district's magnet schools have the same great results as the selective charters, with average pass rates exceeding 80% and with virtually no attrition. Our graduation rate has grown dramatically since it dropped to 39.9% during the crack and gang years. In 2009, when our district's 1,300 seniors were freshmen, the OKCPS had 1,524 freshmen for whom it was accountable because they were categorized as "Full Attendance Year (FAY)." So, absent the new challenge, our poor district would have posted a graduation rate which would be above the national average.

The problem was that everyone knew that such a record was too good to be true. Although the district's figures are meticulously accurate, under the rules of NCLB, they mostly ignore many of the kids that the federal law was supposed to help. As is common throughout the nation, the graduation rate was inflated by dubious "remediation" and "credit recovery" efforts that mostly were fig leafs for "passing kids on." And that is another reason why society is demanding its pound of flesh from students in order to hold schools accountable.

And here's the kicker. Because it is mostly the outcomes of FAY students that matter, we overlook the greater number of students who are "highly mobile." The OKCPS record of producing about 780 seniors who passed their tests on schedule looks very different when their 1,852 freshmen classmates, who missed more than ten straight days of school, are not ignored. Even under the best case scenario, when our seniors entered 9th grade, the district served 3,376 freshmen and only about a third of that number will graduate from the OKCPS.

Of course, an unknown number of mobile students graduate from other districts. And again, it is not the fault of the school system that there are not enough hours in the day to meet NCLB requirements, and actually make sure that no child is left behind. But, during my last two years in the classroom, every day I had a student transfer in or out. Not many students whose lives are on an upward trajectory choose to attend the toughest schools. Similarly, students who couldn't make it in the state's lowest performing school were unlikely to prosper in schools with higher standards.

Given those numbers, why do I keep an open mind on the merits of exit exams? Although I am no longer in the classroom, I have seen my former colleagues sweat blood, getting as many students as possible to take advantage of their last chances to pass their retakes. I am confident that they will help many struggling students complete their senior year in triumph. Moreover, teachers have to hope that incoming freshmen will learn a lesson from their ordeal.

Perhaps adults will also learn a lesson, and recognize that they will be going through the same ordeal every year until we provide the supports necessary for high-quality teaching and learning. Perhaps policy makers will see that those socio-emotional supports are also needed to help our kids who have been invisible as they shuttled from one school to another. Perhaps it will be understood that dumbing down instruction may be a rational act of self-preservation for schools threatened by NCLB-type accountability, but that the only way to help our most vulnerable students reach high standards is to show them the same respect as we accord to kids who are on track for college. Most educators already know that we should be teaching analysis, synthesis, and problem-solving, not remediation or testing tricks, so perhaps our experiment with graduation exams will prompt us to follow the path we always knew we should be taking.