Failing exit exam no reason not to walk

High school seniors who have met all requirements except passage of the exit exam should get to participate in graduation ceremonies.

newsroom@islandpacket.comJune 1, 2014 

Put in a difficult spot, the Beaufort County School District made the right decision to allow about 30 high school seniors who have met all graduation requirements -- except passage of the state's exit exam -- to march in graduation ceremonies this spring.

Typically, we believe in following the rules as much as possible and not making exceptions. To do otherwise undermines the achievement and devalues the work of those who do play by the rules.

But the district found itself in an unusual situation that's unlikely to ever occur again. A unique response was needed and was found.

The problem started several weeks ago when Gov. Nikki Haley signed into law a bill eliminating the requirement that S.C. students pass the exit exam, officially known as the High School Assessment Program. We have written previously about the pointlessness of this bare-bones test that quizzes students on basic English and math skills. It will be replaced next school year with two better tests that will assess students' aptitude for college or jobs.

The rub: the new law goes into effect July 1. That meant that students who met all other graduation requirements would have been prevented from participating in their graduation ceremonies because they failed to pass a test that will be eliminated later this summer and no longer be a graduation requirement anyway.

Haley has weighed in on the issue, encouraging districts across the state to follow Beaufort County's lead and let students walk the graduation stage. "It has come to my attention that the combination of individual district policy and the timing of this act has resulted in some members of the Class of 2014 being excluded from their graduation ceremony, despite the fact that they are members of the Class of 2014 and, under this new law, will receive their diplomas this year," Haley wrote in a letter to S.C. district officials.

We agree with Haley and the school district and are pleased these students will march with their peers in this important rite of passage ceremony.

But we continue to be troubled by an underlying point revealed by this issue. A small percentage of high school students around our state are managing to pass all of their courses required to graduate -- but they're failing to pass the exit exam, which, by nearly all accounts, is a simple test that only assesses basic math and English skills. And students are given multiple times during their sophomore, junior and senior years to pass it.

We assume that a percentage of these students have disabilities that make it difficult for them to pass tests. In fact, advocates for children with disabilities have long pushed for an end to the exit exam requirement, saying it can be the lone hindrance for students who can otherwise earn the 24 credits needed for a S.C. diploma. And in Beaufort County, that is the case for some of the seniors who did not pass the exam this year, said Jim Foster, the district spokesman.

Other students who fail the test may be capable of doing the class work but just don't do well on standardized tests, he added.

It would be worth the state's time to investigate any other reasons why a percentage of students -- albeit a small percentage -- can master the course work but not ace a basic English and math test. It could be the foundation for additional improvements to our state education system.

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