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Testing, testing

A new requirement for high school graduation is meeting resistance.

Phil Bacharach March 14th, 2012

Seven years ago, Gov. Brad Henry signed into law a set of education reforms that included a requirement for high school students to pass at least four of seven end-of-instruction exams as a condition for graduation. Now that mandate finally is slated to take effect this year, and some opponents of the measure want it scrapped.

Critics say the requirement, part of the Achieving Classroom Excellence initiative, places too much importance on the tests.

Among them is state Rep. Fred Jordan, co-author of legislation to eliminate the graduation requirement. He said the requirement fails to account for some students’ extenuating circumstances.

“We’re talking about kids who have zero support from their parents at home and barely are able to get themselves to school because of the environment they live in,” said the Jenks Republican.

Jordan said legislators are floating the notion of a compromise that would enable students who haven’t passed the tests to appeal to the state Board of Education.

right Janet Barresi

“I’m just trying to help find a way to help the kids at least have an opportunity. If they’re not a test-taker — and a lot of people are not — then let’s at least give them one last appeal process so these kids don’t spend 13 years in school and end up with nothing.”

‘Crying, complaining and moaning’
That argument doesn’t pass muster with state Superintendent Janet Barresi. She strongly supports the exams, which cover Algebra I and II, Biology I, English II and III, geometry and U.S. history.

“If this is rolled back, the kids won’t take us seriously ever again. Young people must be accountable for their own education,” she said.

Barresi argues that eliminating or diluting the requirement would be unfair to the vast majority of students who have worked hard to meet the criteria. In November, she said, school districts across the state indicated that 84 percent of 2012’s graduating class had passed the exams, and that figure is likely north of 90 percent now.

Metro districts in which at least 90 percent of seniors have passed the exams include Bethany, Choctaw- Nicoma Park, Deer Creek, Edmond, Mustang, Norman and Yukon, as well as Harding Charter Preparatory in Oklahoma City.

“Those are the [districts] that I congratulate for their leadership and their dedication. These educators are saying, ‘What do we do need to do to get these kids to be successful?’ I applaud their phenomenal efforts,” Barresi said.

“The largest concentration of students that have not met this requirement are in northeastern Oklahoma where these superintendents are crying, complaining and moaning that these kids have hardships and we’re not helping these kids be successful. These people say the kids are going to feel bad at graduation about not getting their diplomas. I’m more concerned about these kids getting a piece of paper that essentially means nothing, and later on in life … are not able to do [necessary work] because we were not able to prepare them.”

Barresi stressed that alternatives exist for students who fail to pass the necessary exams, such as other testing or projects.

‘Paradigm shift’
Her sentiments are echoed by Karl Springer, superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools.

“When we tell our students that we’re going to set a new standard and don’t enforce that standard, we create a new standard — and I don’t think we want to do that,” he said. “I have great empathy for our students in Oklahoma City. It gives you a huge stomachache when you think about children who have been in school for 13 years and they are having difficulty passing these tests, but I believe in our students, and I think they can pass all seven of these tests.”

right Karl Springer

Springer pointed to the example of Grant High School in south Oklahoma City. At the beginning of the school year, 206 of its students hadn’t passed the tests. He said the commitment of Principal Tamie Sanders and her teachers has helped whittle that number down to 34.

“I have confidence that it’s still possible for every one of those Grant seniors to graduate,” said Springer. “This is a paradigm shift for us in education in Oklahoma. I think it’s important that we continue down this road.”

Not all superintendents are so certain. Norman Public Schools Superintendent Joe Siano noted that in 2014, schools across the state will implement different end-of-instruction exams based on new curriculum outlined by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

At the very least, Siano said, he likes the idea of an appeals process for students who don’t pass the required tests — a mechanism, by the way, that state education officials say already exists.

Regardless, he has reservations about the requirement.

“I think we’re going to find students who have done everything for the last 13 years that they were supposed to do … except for this one criteria,” he said. “I think it puts too much weight on that one criteria as opposed to the other 13 years.”

Photos by Mark Hancock

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