For many high school seniors around the country, there was no Graduation Day this year. Despite good attendance and, in some instances, decent grades, thousands of high school seniors failed to pass mandatory state graduation exams implemented over the last decade to improve standards in education. Nearly half of all states now require, or are in the process of implementing, graduation tests to ensure that students who have been passed from grade to grade actually learned basic skills during their 12 years of public education.
Now, some policymakers and politicians -- not to mention the affected students and their parents -- are crying foul. In Florida, black activists have even called for a boycott of the state unless Gov. Jeb Bush reverses the requirement that students pass a state exam before they receive a diploma.
So who's right -- those who claim the tests prevent worthy seniors from receiving a diploma to which they're entitled, or those who argue that without some objective measure of what students have actually learned, a high school diploma isn't worth the paper it's printed on?
Rene Martinez, who will have to pass the California Exit Exam next year if he is to graduate from Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles, says the test is not only unfair, "it makes me feel dumb," he told The Los Angeles Times last month. "It makes me feel like I should know all of this stuff, but I don't," he said, complaining of overcrowding at his school and poorly trained teachers. Only 22 percent of low-income California seniors passed the math test last year, the Times reported.
Robyn Collins, a high school senior from Sparks, Nevada, has maintained a 3.0 ("B") average but can't pass the state's math test required for graduation, even though she has taken it five times. "I'm not a stupid kid," Collins told The Washington Post recently. "It is just that in my opinion, the stuff on the test doesn't equate to anything that I've learned in school."
Students like Martinez and Collins are right to be angry -- but the tests aren't the problem. Most states require students to demonstrate only rudimentary knowledge of high school math, language arts, science and social studies in order to graduate. In some states, a student can "pass" the test by answering less than half the questions correctly, and virtually all states allow students multiple attempts to take the tests.
Some teachers -- and especially, their unions -- complain that graduation exams force them to "teach the test," rather than helping their students learn "how to think." The high failure rate among high school seniors suggests that many teachers aren't doing a good job on either score. At least when teachers instruct students on the specific facts and skills that will be covered by graduation tests, we can be reasonably assured the students will actually learn something. But modern theories of education favor "higher-order thinking" and "problem-solving" skills over rote memorization and drills, which may be why so few store clerks can make correct change today without the aid of fancy cash registers.
Parents who are angry that their children won't get into college or earn enough to support themselves because of the exams ought to stage a revolt, but not the kind being sponsored by anti-testing groups around the nation. Several organizations now advocate abandoning so-called high-stakes testing; and in some states, groups have organized to boycott the test. The Los Angeles Unified School Board voted unanimously in April to oppose implementation of the statewide test for graduation next year, but this is like shooting the messenger instead of facing the problem.
A far better solution would be for parents -- and other taxpayers -- to refuse to support schools that fail to teach. Funding for education has increased exponentially over the last 40 years, but the quality of education hasn't kept pace. Requiring students to pass graduation exams before receiving their diplomas was supposed to make schools more accountable. So far, the only ones being held responsible are the students. If we're willing to deny diplomas to seniors who can't demonstrate they've earned them, maybe we ought to deny paychecks to school administrators and teachers who aren't doing their jobs.