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As Seniors Graduate, Debate Continues on Exit Exams
Evidence Lacking That Set of 4 Tests Is Beneficial

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 25, 2009

When Maryland's high school class of 2009 graduates next month, it will become the first in the state to prove it can solve an equation such as 12x + 84 =252. (Answer: 14.)

But state officials still don't know the value of another variable: the number of students who won't pass exams in algebra, English, biology and government for a new graduation requirement. As of March, about 4,000 of 58,000 seniors statewide hadn't passed the High School Assessments or met an alternative academic standard. This is the first year that seniors have been required to meet the testing standard.

State and local officials predict that graduation rates will remain roughly the same and that only a handful of seniors will be denied a diploma based on the HSA requirement.

All of which raises more questions. What difference did the tests make for students? Was the testing program worth the tremendous effort from administrators and teachers to bring it into existence? Will graduates benefit from the tests in the long run?

As Maryland joins Virginia and 24 other states that have similar exams, the answers are frustratingly elusive. Although the Maryland tests are meant to raise the value of the state's high school diploma in a competitive global market, proponents and critics agree the exams measure a standard that can be met by many ninth-graders. And some experts say it's hard to tell whether the exams are improving instruction or just making adults and students better at gaming the tests to get better scores.

"There is absolutely no expectation in education policy right now that these reforms would be evaluated. It's almost as if drug manufacturers were able to dream up drugs and go ahead with them without any testing," said Daniel Koretz, a professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. "We have very little hard, empirical evidence about the effects of these test-based accountability programs, all of them, on student learning."

State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick has resolutely supported the tests through criticism from politicians, parents and some administrators. She said the HSAs ensure that students will not get lost.

"You've got to have a consistent floor. And frankly, Maryland did not have a consistent floor," Grasmick said. "It varied not only from school system to school system, but from classroom to classroom. When we say students got credit for mastering [a subject], et cetera, we didn't have an validation for that. Now we've got validation for a floor."

The tests reflect the usual slurry of knowledge sprayed at teenagers during their high school years. In addition to algebra, they'll know what transports nutrients to the cells of a squid (blood), the effect of the Supreme Court's decision in McCulloch v. Maryland (state laws that conflicted with federal laws became unconstitutional) and how to analyze a piece of literature (that's a bit complicated).

Some educators, including Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, say the exams should test for a higher standard of knowledge. And critics have been aggravated by constant tinkering with the policy that is widely perceived as loosening the rules.

When the HSAs were conceived in 1995, state officials envisioned that all students would be required to pass each test. But now students can fulfill the requirement with a combined minimum score on the four tests. Students who fail a test twice can demonstrate knowledge through a state-designed "bridge project," and under special circumstances, some are eligible for a test waiver.

Grasmick says a bridge project is just as hard or harder than the exams, but the projects have been a critical crutch for jurisdictions that have had trouble with the tests. Hundreds of students are doing projects in Prince George's County, where in April one in 10 seniors hadn't met the requirements, and in Baltimore, where in March one in four seniors hadn't passed.

Despite those grim numbers, the superintendents in both school systems strongly support the tests. Prince George's Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said that he expected the county's graduation rate of 83 percent to remain about the same and that the tests should be made harder.

"I think that at the end of the day, they measure a baseline standard for what all graduates in Maryland should know and be able to do," Hite said. "If you're talking about preparing kids for college or a career, in some respect they're not rigorous enough."

The testing changes have another effect in making it harder to determine whether the tests are successful in improving students' performance in college and afterward, said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who specializes in education policy.

"I don't know of anyone who has looked at states with exit exams and what's the impact on college remediation, college remedial enrollments," Loveless said. "That kind of study is very hard to do. It's a moving target for researchers. These states are constantly fiddling with, 'Are we going to have an exit exam?' They change it, on and on and on."

Despite the ambiguity of results, exit exams are popular enough that about half of the states have them. (The District doesn't have an exit exam program. "Though this is a topic we're interested in very much, there are no definitive plans at this time," D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee wrote in an e-mail.)

Exit exams are a fixture in Virginia, which began giving its Standards of Learning exams in 1998. Initially, critics predicted a disaster: In the first round of testing, more than half of the students were failing some of the exams. But graduation rates ultimately held steady in 2004, the first year in which seniors were required to pass the tests.

Maryland appears to be headed in the same direction, with years of public debate and last-minute efforts to postpone the exams dying down. Grasmick said she's happy with the outcome.

"When I'm at a graduation this year," Grasmick said, "I can honestly say that there's no fraud being committed in the handing of that diploma."

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