Kentucky is failing too many students, but exit exams are not the solution

Hal Heiner, chairman of the Kentucky Board of Education
Hal Heiner, chairman of the Kentucky Board of Education

The state school board, under chairman Hal Heiner, is poised to OK new graduation requirements that could backfire on young Kentuckians and their schools.

This profound shift in accountability is advancing under the radar, as lawmakers are busy with their elections and educators are focused on new assessment results to be posted Monday.

When they awaken to the potential impacts, the backlash will be fierce, pitting lawmakers of both parties and the education community against the Bevin administration.

If Heiner and Interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis are sincere about making a high school diploma a more meaningful credential, they should avoid snarling education in a battle and instead deeply engage stakeholders on the front end. At the very least, slow down so the state school board can get up to speed. It’s not at all clear that members understand all that they will be asked to approve on Oct. 2, much less what research says about the possible impacts.

(If Heiner and Lewis are satisfied just to advance a narrative of failed public schools, well, carry on.)

Like the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence and others who worry about the proposed changes, we wholeheartedly endorse the rationale behind them: Kentucky graduates too many youngsters — more than a third, by the state’s count — who are unprepared to succeed in college or work. Among eighth graders, 43 percent scored less than proficient in reading and 51 percent less than proficient in math in 2017.

Beginning with the entering high school class in 2019, Lewis and Heiner propose withholding diplomas unless students, in addition to earning enough class credits, also satisfy the following new requirements:

Passing a “foundational” exam in reading and math that would be taken in 10th grade and that would identify students needing remediation. Students could take the test multiple times.

Achieving any one of the following to demonstrate “academic readiness,” a benchmark score still to be determined on a college entrance exam, a 3 or higher on two Advanced Placement tests, 5 or higher on two International Baccalaureate exams, benchmark on two Cambridge Advanced IB exams or a grade of B or higher in two dual credit courses.

Or students could opt to demonstrate “career readiness” by achieving any one among industry certifications, benchmark scores on Career and Technical Education end-of-program assessments, a B or higher in six hours of approved dual credit courses, completion of an approved apprenticeship, or by demonstrating “exceptional work experience.”

Students also will have to pass a new civics exam, mandated by the legislature and based on the U.S. citizenship test.

Hopes that an exit exam will produce better educated Kentuckians are not supported by the experience in other states. A review of 46 studies by researchers at the University of Texas in 2010 concluded that exit tests produced few benefits and were associated with “costs for the most disadvantaged students.” The National Research Council released a study in 2011 that concluded high school exit exam programs “decrease the rate of high school graduation without increasing achievement.”

The trend in other states, including Tennessee, is to end exit exams.

In Kentucky, students and teachers would need new supports and resources to meet the new demands. No one’s talking about that. This year’s state budget zeroed out money for professional development and instructional resources. The funding gap between the poorest and wealthiest districts is almost back to pre-1990 levels. And there’s little money to support struggling schools.

A new exam can’t build the capacity that schools need to raise all students to proficient. What would suffer as schools shift resources into remediation and focus on minimum requirements? Would schools feel pressured to steer marginal students onto the vocational track for fear they might fail to meet even one of the academic indicators and miss out on a diploma?

These questions and others should be explored before raising the stakes so dramatically on students.

We agree with Heiner and Lewis that it’s wrong to send high school graduates out into the world without the preparation they need to succeed.

But sending them out into the world unprepared and without even a high school diploma is no solution.