Top-down mandates futile when schools have ‘little incentive to improve instruction’
A conservative policy group is cheering the end of “exit exams” in Washington state, saying the additional graduation requirement was full of holes and didn’t serve its purpose.
“Policymakers promised this requirement would raise standards and make the earning of a high school diploma a meaningful achievement,” Liv Finne of the Washington Policy Center told The College Fix in an email. “This did not happen.”
Washington is the latest state to repeal its high school graduation exam, and it was a bipartisan affair. Not a single member of Legislature, where Democrats have a narrow majority, voted against HB 1599.
It was signed into law earlier this month by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, a longshot presidential candidate.
According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which opposes standardized testing, as of this month only 11 states remain that require exit exams for the class of 2020. That’s the lowest tally since at least the mid-1990s, said the group, also known as FairTest.
Washington’s law followed months behind the invalidation of New Jersey’s two-test graduation requirement, which was set to take effect with next year’s graduating class. A state appellate court cited its conflict with another state law, not its constitutionality.
“Washington’s two decades of experience have shown that it was a mistake to require students to pass a state test to graduate from high school,” said Finne, who directs education policy for the center.
“Policymakers have tried many times to impose top-down accountability requirements in hopes of improving the schools,” failing to recognize they are “regional monopolies,” she told The Fix. “As such, schools have a guaranteed income stream, and little incentive to improve instruction.”
It’s the second major change to education law in the Evergreen State this year. The Legislature repealed the state’s ban on race and gender preferences in college admissions, approved by voters more than 20 years ago.
That decision was much more polarizing. The University of Washington College Republicans held an “affirmative action bake sale” to criticize the new law, which drew a rebuke from the university’s female Hispanic president.
‘Wasting time better spent on acquiring important knowledge and skills’
The new Washington law creates multiple pathways to a diploma rather than relying on a single exam. According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, students can complete a selection of career and technical education courses or a “dual credit course in English language arts or mathematics” that offers college credit.
They can also meet a minimum SAT or ACT score, earn high school credit in a high school transition course in ELA or math, or pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.
Democratic Rep. Mike Sells, a former teacher, said the bill “just makes logical sense,” the Everett Herald reported. “You’re making a judgment based on one standardized test that was not designed to make those judgments. That’s wrong.”
Finne said the state had already undercut the exit-exam requirement by creating “alternative tests” and letting certain groups avoid it altogether.
“Schools spent countless hours preparing students to pass the test, wasting time better spent on acquiring important knowledge and skills,” she told The Fix:
And, even worse, thousands of students failed to graduate from high school every year because they failed this one test, even though they had earned passing grades in their courses, and fulfilled every other high school requirement.
Ashley Varner of the Freedom Foundation, another right-of-center policy group focused on the West Coast, declined to comment on the new law. She told The Fix it was beyond the scope of her organization, which frequently advocates on K-12 education issues. The Fordham Institute, a national education think tank, did not return a call.
At one point more than half of the states had exit exams, but now most seem to agree that graduation tests are not the best metric to measure student competency, according to FairTest.
For the states that still have exit exams, trends are pointing toward lightening that load, FairTest said.
Mississippi allows for lower test scores to be combined with higher class grades in order for students to graduate. Georgia, Nevada and Tennessee now use “end-of-course” tests that contribute to course grades, but students are not required to pass them.
Texas reduced the number of required exams from fifteen to five and allow for students to retake two if they fail them. Indiana allows for alternatives to the exit exam, “though how easy or hard that will be remains to be seen, including the use of a ‘locally determined’ option,” FairTest said.
It argues that exit exams create enormous costs to society such as higher incarceration rates, disproportionately harm the most vulnerable students and provide a distorted picture of their competency relative to their transcripts.
“State are dropping exit exams because they recognize the tests undermine equity but do not help improve educational quality,” FairTest Executive Director Andre Green wrote in a press release.
He cited the diplomas that Alaska, Arizona, California, Georgia, Mississippi, Nevada, South Carolina and Texas retroactively granted to students that didn’t pass them, after their requirements were repealed.