Tests too tough for graduation

17th December 1999 at 00:00

Jon Marcus reports on the fallout from high student failure rates in state school-leaving exams.

ATTEMPTS to impose a demanding standardised school leaving exam in a host of states are being forced into retreat by high failure rates, parental anger and the potential cost of widespread remedial instruction.

Already, one state has withdrawn the highly touted tests, which students have to pass to graduate from school, and all but one have lowered the passing grade, mostly under political pressure resulting from high student failure rates.

In one-third of the 49 states that have the tests, the shift has come within three years of the standards being set during an earlier wave of popular enthusiasm for get-tough educational reform.

Critics say the standards have been set too high. In some cases, students are being tested on material they have not yet been taught.

"Until you can walk into the average classroom in the average school and find the content being taught in a way that would help the average student meet the standard, it is not fair to penalise the students," Richard Elmore, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told a conference in Washington marking the 10th anniversary of the highly lauded National Education Summit, which was the catalyst for many of the school reform plans.

Some of those leading the educational reform movement say lawmakers are giving in too easily to parents' complaints. "They got the legislature to water it down," Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson said, disdainfully.

Under pressure from irate parents, Wisconsin has already withdrawn a test that every student would have had to pass to graduate from high school.

In Arizona, where only one in 10 students passed a new state maths test, education officials have agreed to reconsider the exam. Virginia, which had just imposed a rule that schools would be stripped of their accreditation if their students failed to meet new state standards, quickly reversed the policy after only 7 per cent of schools managed to meet that requirement.

And while Massachusetts has stuck to its threat that students will not be allowed to graduate from high school unless they pass a new state test, it has set the acceptable grade just one point above the "failing" level; New York has set a passing score of only 55 out of 100 for its English exam.

Critics say the states had moved too fast to impose these tests under pressure from lawmakers who did not provide for teacher training or smaller classes - and who never considered the ramifications of high failure rates that could force schools to hold back tens of thousands of students.

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