Battles Continue Over Graduation Tests

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner - January 2008

Battles continue over graduation tests in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Washington. FairTest, which is supporting activists in several states, has a new fact sheet on graduation and grade promotion tests. And Kids as Self Advocates (KASA) also has a report on the impact of high school exit exams on students with disabilities.

Pennsylvania currently requires all students to pass a state test or a locally designed assessment to graduate. In the fall of 2007, the state Board of Education, with the backing of Governor Edward Rendell (D), proposed to eliminate the local assessment option and require every student to pass a battery of new state tests or the current exam. Education, civil rights and other groups have mobilized to block this plan. In November, FairTest's Monty Neill spoke to a meeting of leaders from groups such as the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, the Education Law Center, the NAACP, the ARC of Pennsylvania (an advocacy group for people with disabilities), and many individual parents and educators. The board also held a series of public roundtables at which their proposal received withering criticism.

By December, the state Board of Education had partially retreated. It now proposes to allow local assessments to continue, provided they are approved by an agency selected by the state. The new plan also decreased the number of required tests. Opponents say this proposal, while less onerous, will undermine the quality of curriculum and instruction and still deny diplomas unfairly to large numbers of students, mostly low-income, of color, whose first language is not English or who have disabilities.

The board sponsored additional roundtable sessions in December, but their revised plan was still sharply criticized by most of those attending the meetings. While the board can require the tests, legislators can also weigh in, and many oppose the idea of mandated statewide graduation tests. The board now plans to vote on the revised graduation testing policy in January.

For more information:

• FairTest op ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer

• ELC’s website with relevant materials:

• The Board of Education's current proposal

The Maryland Board of Education has proposed requiring students to pass a battery of end-of-course exams to earn a diploma. While the tests are now being administered, the graduation requirement is to take effect with the class of 2009. This fall, the Maryland State Department of Education held public hearings on the testing program. Parents testified to long scoring turnaround times, disrupted class schedules, and bureaucratic foul-ups in obtaining accommodations for disabled students. Four appointees of newly elected Governor Martin O'Malley to the Board of Education supported a reprieve for the class of 2009, arguing that public concerns should be addressed before a final vote on the requirements. However, all holdover appointees from previous administrations voted to approve the requirement for the class of 2009, with the addition of a senior project alternative assessment for students who meet certain criteria.


The governor will name three new board members in July 2008, so the board, which will have a majority of O'Malley appointees, could then choose to remove or delay the graduation requirement. The Legislature could overrule the Board, but legislative leaders have previously blocked initiatives to address testing. Reform advocates believe that situation may now change. State Superintendent of Education Nancy Grasmick, a graduation test supporter, is at odds with the governor. In a closed-door session in December that some critics say may have violated state law, the Board renewed her contract, which would have expired in June. Thus, the fate of Grasmick and of the high-stakes tests have become intertwined.

Teachers, parents and civil rights groups, with support from FairTest, are working to halt the graduation requirement before it goes into effect. A kick-off coordination meeting hosted by the Equity in Education Coalition of Montgomery County (EEC) brought together representatives from several statewide advocacy organizations. These groups have been working with supportive legislators and board members.

Opponents of the high-stakes requirement are considering proposing an alternative graduation assessment process that would more fairly, and under local control, determine who has demonstrated readiness to graduate. They are also discussing how to pressure the state to ensure adequate opportunity to learn what is required under any graduation plan.

For more information:

• On testing reform efforts in Maryland: Sue Allison, Marylanders Against High-Stakes Testing (a FairTest Assessment Reform Network affiliate),

• FairTest letter to Maryland Board of Education:

• Maryland exit exam program:

Last year, 12% of all New Jersey graduates and 34% in the state’s poorest, urban districts received their high school diplomas by passing the Special Review Assessment (SRA), an alternative graduation test. The SRA is a series of “performance assessment tasks” that cover the same material as the state’s traditional exit exam, but are given in a less formal setting, with more time and several opportunities to complete. While the traditional exam is English only, the SRA can be taken in multiple languages. All graduates receive the same diploma. Access to the SRA is a major reason New Jersey has one of the nation’s highest graduation rates, and some of the best rates for students of color, despite significant gaps with white students.

For several years, some state officials and politicians have campaigned to end the SRA in the name of “higher standards.” The State Board of Education has resisted these efforts, demanding alternatives before taking action. Last fall, New Jersey’s Education Law Center convened a group of advocates, researchers and activists to examine ways to preserve the SRA. In August, the group released a policy brief, New Jersey’s Special Review Assessment: Loophole or Lifeline? recommending ways to improve the SRA and tying it to larger issues of secondary reform. The report, along with a series of public forums and lobbying efforts, helped push the Department of Education to produce a proposal for reforming the SRA instead of eliminating it.

At its January meeting, State Board members in attendance supported the concept of revising the SRA, probably by standardizing the administration and scoring of tasks, rather than eliminating it. SRA defenders are pushing to have educators and community people strongly involved in SRA redesign. The board will continue the discussion at its February meeting. For more information, contact

• Thanks to Stan Karp of ELC for this article.

• Report available at

Connecticut citizens will have a chance to weigh in on a new high school exit exam proposal during a one-year “listening tour” planned by state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan. In November, McQuillan sought and received initial approval from the state Board of Education for moving forward with his proposal for tightening Connecticut high school graduation requirements. The plan would increase the number of courses needed for graduation and require students to pass five state-administered end-of-course tests in algebra I and II, chemistry, English II and history. Changes could take effect in 2011-2012. Among those with doubts about the proposal is former state Education Commissioner Betty Sternberg. Now superintendent of Greenwich schools, Sternberg wrote in a recent commentary, “Connecticut policy-makers have offered the same old answers for a new world — raise expectations by requiring more of something (in this case credits); narrow choice and focus (specify a set of individual, unconnected courses); and then require kids to pass test after test to earn a high school diploma. We must do something dramatically different.”

• FairTest's Monty Neill and Lisa Guisbond penned an opinion column, for the New York Times, against the graduation test proposal.

In Washington state, Mothers Against WASL and the Parent Empowerment Network (PEN) are urging test reform activists to “sponsor” students who are at risk of not graduating due to incoming Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) graduation requirements. The funds will support a class action lawsuit against the exit exam. Disability Rights Advocates and a private law firm are helping develop the case. PEN’s goals are to stop the denial of diplomas to students in the Class of 2008 and to prevent WASL from negatively affecting the education of younger students. The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction reports passage rates of 84%, but that figure is inflated by significant student attrition. In reality, only about 60% of the original members of the class of 2008 have passed the WASL. Failure rates have been 50% for students with disabilities and 66% for limited English proficient students on WASL’s reading and/or writing tests.

• Mothers Against WASL’s website is and you can donate online or by mailing a check to Parent Empowerment Network, PO Box 494, Spanaway, WA 98387.

• FairTest has a new fact sheet on graduation and grade promotion tests, on the web at

• Kids as Self Advocates (KASA) also has a report on the impact of high school exit exams on students with disabilities, written by the students. It includes powerful student voices on the damage caused by the tests, a look at the historical impact of testing on SWDs, and recommendations for improving the tests if they remain in place.