Students who fail grad test to have more options

Georgia high school graduation rates are going up and so are the ways students can get around failing the test that’s key to receiving a diploma.

Since 2004, the state has required students to pass the Georgia High School Graduation Test in either their junior or senior years in order to graduate.

For the past three years, the graduation rate has increased so that now, 79.9 percent of all students who start ninth grade are eligible to walk across the stage with their classmates and pick up their diplomas.

But in that same period, there has also been a variance process that has allowed 2,896 students to graduate, even though they didn't pass the five-part test of their math, science, social studies, writing and English language arts skills.

And now the State Board of Education is moving to further expand the opportunities for students to obtain variances, something not everyone supports.

The state board, for example, is now open to considering how a student who failed one or more portions of the graduation test performed on the SAT, the most popular of the college entrance exams.

Six other factors still have to be considered, including:

  • School attendance;
  • Whether the student has passed at least three of the five parts of the graduation test;
  • Whether the student has taken advantage of remediation after each failed graduation test;
  • Whether the student tried, but failed to pass a portion of the test at least four times;
  • Whether the student's scale score on the graduation test in question fell within one standard error of measurement for passing.

Officials will decide on the minimum SAT score in the next 60 to 90 days, said Allan Meyer, assistant director of policy for the state DOE.

Florida already considers the SAT for students who fail the graduation test and seek a waiver, said Brad Bryant, Georgia's new state superintendent of schools.

"This is an alternative way for [some] students to demonstrate that they have mastered a particular content area," Bryant said. "It's really about keeping those same high standards, but better serving the student population we're working with."

He said he expects only a "statistically small number" of students to qualify for a variance, even with the board's decision to accept other tests, such as advanced placement tests, the ACT and industry certification tests, as well as the SAT.

Asked if one goal was to help boost the state's graduation rate, Bryant, who moved from the state board to the superintendent's job in July, said, "That did not enter into our thinking at all. I don't think it will move our graduation rate significantly one way or the other."

Bart Buff, chairman of the social studies department at Eastside High School in Covington, said he's not certain that the board's decision to expand the criteria for a variance makes "a lot of sense."

"The graduation tests are very basic level tests," Buff said. "I can't imagine there would be many kids at all who would have a good score on the SAT who couldn't pass the graduation test."

He said, in principle, he's also concerned because graduation rates are used to determine whether a school has made adequate yearly progress, a benchmark under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

"If you give the students a much wider leeway to work around absolutely having to pass that test, then it looks like to me we're looking for more ways to take accountability off students and parents," Buff said. "It just seems like it puts us in an odd situation as far as AYP."

Since 2004, the English language arts and mathematics portions of the GHSGT have been factors in AYP.

Buff's preference, he said, would be to scrap the graduation test and have an end-of-course test in every subject, something that Matt Cardoza, spokesman for the DOE, said has been considered but put off because of budget cuts and federal requirements.

The graduation test "is such a poor measure," Buff said. "It tests curriculum all the way back to kindergarten, where an end-of-course test is much more direct accountability. You can't assign credit or blame to a particular teacher on the graduation test."

Trials of a test taker

Jasmin Washington started taking the graduation tests in 2007 as a junior at Stockbridge High School. She failed the science portion 12 times over the course of the next three years and was slated to take the test again last month when the state Board of Education finally granted her a waiver.

In 2008, Jasmin walked with her classmates at graduation, but instead of a diploma, she received a certificate of performance.

That wasn't what the two colleges that had already accepted her were looking for, so her mother, Cheryl Washington, stayed on her to accept the tutoring that was offered and to keep retaking the test.

"It was real tough taking it over and over," Jasmin said."And I was upset because I couldn't go to college."

From her early years in school, teachers had noted that Jasmin had trouble taking tests and that problem persisted into high school, particularly on the math and science portions of the GHSGT, Cheryl Washington said.

Jasmin passed three of the five tests on the first try. She passed the math test on the second trial, but the best she ever did on the science exam was seven points shy of a passing score, her mother said.

"Oh, my gosh. It's been traumatic," Cheryl Washington said. "They are holding a lot of kids back."

About the test

Students take the test for the first time in 11th grade and are eligible to take it multiple times. The test is scored from 400 to 600 points, with 600 being a perfect score.

A student has to score at least 500 points on all five portions of the test to be considered passing. Otherwise, they receive either a certificate of performance or a special education diploma when they finish 12th grade.

Currently, students may request a variance if they meet seven conditions, dealing with everything from attendance to passage of the end-of-course test.

The state board also grants some waivers to students who fail the graduation test but have disabilities or extreme hardships.

With the changes approved by the board in July, "We will be helping students to be able to succeed without demeaning the rigor of the graduation requirements," Meyer said.

Bob Schaeffer, with the group Fair Test, said the state board's decision to create more leeway in the variance process is a "band-aid on a bad system."

"It certainly will help some kids," he said. "The reality is the vast majority who fail these exams either have learning disabilities or second language problems. For those students, creating another testing option doesn't help much."

Box info

Student Granted Variances on the Georgia High School Graduation Tests

School Year Met Criteria

2007-2008 1,449

2008-2009 851

2009-2010 596

Graduation rates

2007-2008 -- 75.3

2009 -- 78.9

Initial 2010-- 79.9

Source: Georgia Department of Education