South Carolina Bill Would End Exit Exam As A Must For Graduation

South Carolina may drop its three-decade-old requirement that high school students pass an exit exam to graduate and join neighboring states in a testing overhaul.

Legislation that would remove the mandate has gained widespread support from parents, educators and legislators of both parties, who agree that a single test should not determine a student's future.

And advocates for children with disabilities say the High School Assessment Program can be the lone hindrance for students who can earn the 24 credits needed for a South Carolina diploma.

Susan and Richard Power told a South Carolina House of Representatives panel Wednesday that the HSAP is robbing their daughter of her dream of being a nurse. She's been unable to pass both sections, despite repeated attempts and work with tutors. The certificate of attendance she'll otherwise receive won't allow her to achieve her goals and be a contributing citizen, Susan Power said.

“I urge you to pass this so students who can pass courses can proceed on their ability and not just one test score,” Richard Power said, just before the panel voted 7-0 to send the bill to the full Education Committee.

Students initially take the exit exam their second year of high school. Those who don't pass both the English and math portions on their first attempt have multiple chances to try again.

Last year, 80 percent of first-time test-takers statewide passed both sections. But 3,800 seniors could not graduate because they failed to pass the HSAP. That's 8 percent of the entire Class of 2012, according to the South Carolina Department of Education.

The bill would still require that students take the HSAP because the results are used to gauge schools' and districts' progress toward meeting state and federal accountability goals – at least, for a while longer. The idea is to eventually replace the HSAP with tests relevant to students' pursuits beyond high school, whether that's immediately entering the workforce or going to college.

The measure would create a study group to explore the options.

In the meantime, “we don't need to continue to block students from getting a diploma,” said House Education Chairman Phil Owens, R-Easley, the main sponsor of the bill; 36 others have signed onto it.

South Carolina was among 24 states last year requiring passage of an exit exam to graduate, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

But some states are moving away from an exit exam mandate.

Those that have either deleted the requirement or begun phasing it out include North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, according to the Center on Education Policy.

South Carolina's independent Education Oversight Committee has advocated getting rid of the exit exam for several years, and says it has outlived its usefulness.

South Carolina teens have taken an exit exam since 1986. Then, it was called the Basic Skills Assessment Program. Predating the era of accountability, it was a back-door way of ensuring certain standards were taught, EOC Executive Director Melanie Barton said.

The updated HSAP replaced it in 2004, following passage of the federal No Child Left Behind law. It costs taxpayers nearly $4 million yearly, or $71 per student, according to the EOC.

South Carolina needs to redirect that money by switching to tests that provide useful information to students, teachers, employers and college admissions offices, Barton said.

“The thing that keeps holding us back is the federal accountability system,” she said.

The EOC, as well as Owens, support a system similar to North Carolina's, in which all 11th-graders take the ACT college-entrance exam and some students also take ACT WorkKeys, a job skills assessment system that awards credentials students can take to employers.

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