State to begin phasing out high school graduation test

The state Board of Education is expected Wednesday to start the process of phasing out the test that's been the gateway -- and, in some cases, stumbling block -- to graduation for all of Georgia's public high school students since 1995.

In the past three years, at least 3,000 students failed the test multiple times and had to petition the state Board of Education in order obtain their diplomas.

Even now, 100,000 high school juniors and seniors are getting ready to take the test in the next three weeks. But barring some major change, they'll be among the last who have to pass the four-part Georgia High School Graduation Test before they can graduate.

Beginning with next school year's high school freshman class, students will be expected to pass eight end-of-course tests to graduate.

Actually, they'll have some wiggle room. What they'll literally have to do is pass all eight courses, and those end-of-course tests will count for 20 percent of their course grade.

In the phase-in period, current students will be allowed to take either or both tests. But by graduation they will have to have passed the high school graduation tests in the core subject areas of English/language arts, math, science and social studies or the equivalent end-of-course tests, said Melissa Fincher, associate state school superintendent of assessment and accountability.

One holdover from the graduation test -- the state writing test -- will continue to be a requirement for all students at least through 2014-15, Fincher said.

Janice Bell, an executive assistant for Turner Sports Marketing & Programming at Turner Broadcasting, hopes the elimination of the graduation test will help her son, Major, who is  a junior at DeKalb County's Lakeside High School.

She said Major has been an A-B student in all of his subjects except math, which has been a struggle since the fourth grade.

Under the current rules, if Major doesn't pass all four portions of the graduation test after five tries, he can't graduate with his class, even with his A's and B's, Bell said.

"He is not alone," she said. "There are thousands of students who have a learning disability in various subjects who seem to have been totally left out of the process for the GHSGT. The GHSGT is killing the opportunity for students like Major to graduate and go on to the college of their choice."

John McCrary, the parent of a sophomore at Wheeler High School in east Cobb, also supports the focus on end-of-course tests.

“The end-of-course test would be better and put them on track with what other states do, especially with common core curriculum," he said. "It would also help hold teachers accountable because they are teaching things in their area of competence.”

Several states, including Florida, are moving to end-of-course tests to evaluate whether students are ready to graduate. Georgia officials have wanted to do away with the GHSGT since former Gov. Roy Barnes created end-of-course tests as part of his A-Plus Education Reform Act.

"This has been in the works literally for 11 years, and it's just high time we got there," state School Superintendent John Barge said Tuesday.

Joan Lord, vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board, said end-of-course tests are considered better than tests such as the state's graduation test.

End-of-course tests, as their name implies, focus on recently completed studies, where the graduation test is designed as a gauge of a student's cumulative knowledge.

"If a student is not successful [on the graduation test], you really don't know where to go back and fix the problem," Lord said. "On an end-of-course exam, if a student or group of students don't do well, you know you've got a course you can work on."

Barge said Georgia's graduation test, which students generally take in the 11th grade, "is not as strong a measure or indicator of student success as the end-of-course tests are."

"The reason I say that is, in some instances you are waiting for three years before you assess a student on material they learned in the ninth grade," Barge said. "The end-of-course tests are more timely and provide better feedback on individual courses than a graduation test that is not as rigorous."

The superintendent acknowledged that with the change students will no longer have to pass a test to graduate.

"There is some concern there," Barge said. "That's why we increased the weighting of the [end-of-course] test. That gets a little more buy-in on the students' part. Twenty percent is a significant amount of weight for a single test. They are going to have to take that test seriously."

But, he said, the change addresses the concern that some students just don't test well. The students' "performance in the course will compensate for that."

In 2010, 97,525 students took one or more of the four graduation tests. About 74 percent passed all of the tests, and 91 percent passed the math portion. The worst performance was on social studies, which had a 78 percent passing rate.

Tynisha Simmons, a 20-year-old from Riverdale, would be glad to see the end of the graduation test. She’s now trying to find out how to get a waiver from the state so she can graduate from Clayton County schools. She’s taken parts of the graduation test more than five times and still hasn’t passed the social studies and math portions.

“They’re pretty much telling me I need to hope that the state Board of Education gives me a waiver,” she said. “I want to do something with my life. They should not give us tests like that.”

Simmons attends an alternative school in Jonesboro and has been grappling with disabilities since second grade, she said.

In Gwinnett County, Jonathan Tillery, a junior at Meadowcreek High School, said he is not really worried about the graduation test. The school has had two events to help students prepare, he said.

But he does like the idea of having one less test to take. “It does get tiresome,” Tillery said.

The state board formally has to approve the rule change at its April meeting.

The U.S. Department of Education also has to sign off on the plans because of requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind Law. That law requires states to have a testing system to measure whether students are making progress annually.

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