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House bill would raise test standards for high school diplomas

House bill would raise test standards for high school diplomas

February 20th, 2014 by By Bailey Otto/News Tribune in News

A Missouri House bill that would raise the standard for high school students to receive diplomas is once again up for discussion.

To graduate, each student would be required to score proficient or higher in at least one high school assessment in each of the core areas: mathematics, communication arts, social sciences and science. Accredited districts could use their own tests; districts that are provisionally accredited would have to use Missouri's statewide assessments. HB 1536, or the Student Accountability Act, would begin in 2017-18.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Bryan Spencer, R-Wentzville, contends that many students are passed along to the job force or college without the skills they need to succeed. He said that giving some of these students a diploma is lying to the public.

"A high school diploma used to be something that was worth value, but now it's looked at often as a little bit more than a piece of paper," Spencer said. "The credibility has lost its proof that a person is educated and well-prepared for the next step of life, whether it be military, college, technical schools or going into the workforce."

The bill failed to move out of committee last year. Spencer said he received about four negative responses compared to more than 50 positive responses last year from the public. He talked of business owners, teachers and parents who had come to him in support. However, during today's hearing, no one spoke out for the bill besides Spencer.

But opposition was ripe. A few educational organizations took turns giving the bill a good thwack. Missouri National Education Association, the Missouri Council of Administrators of Special Education and the Missouri Association of School Administrators opposed the bill. Teaching to the test and hindering students with Individualized Education Programs - individual programs designed for students receiving special education - were a few of the fears expressed at the hearing.

A provision is included to ease the effect on special education students. A student who scores at least one standard deviation below average on an intelligence test would be awarded a local achievement diploma.

Diane Golden, policy coordinator for the Missouri Council of Administrators of Special Education, argued that this provision doesn't do nearly enough to keep special education students from being negatively affected. Golden said one standard deviation is not sufficient to catch all of the students with IEPs or learning disabilities. She pointed out that this provision would only include students eligible under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act with an IQ of 85 or less.

"It certainly doesn't cover the vast majority of them," she said. "The end result is that an awful lot of kids with disabilities will not be able to get a regular high school diploma."

But despite the less-than-enthusiastic welcome this bill has had in committee, Spencer said he intends to stick with it. These tests are referred to as high-stakes tests or exit tests, and many states have some version in place. He points to a few other states that he thinks are doing things right: Alabama, Alaska, California, Georgia, Texas and South Carolina.

According to the Advocacy Institute, by 2010, half of the states had high-stakes tests in place, with a few more like Rhode Island and Oregon in the process of phasing in the tests.

Spencer was a teacher for 22 years, both in special education and regular classrooms. He said that students have little or no investment in the statewide assessments, because they know it doesn't affect their grades or graduation. So when the scores come back, holding teachers wholly accountable isn't fair.

"Teachers take a terrible bashing on the education system," Spencer said. "We need to look at the source of the education, the people who should be responsible for themselves, and that's the student."

The bill is currently written so that these exit tests would be Missouri's standardized assessments, which are the End-of-Course exams. A substitute will be added to the bill that would allow parents to choose the standardized test that would be used: ACT, GED or the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. Options for students who don't make the cut include success classes, tutoring, re-taking the test, and summer and after-school programs.