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March 12, 2006
Section: Local News

Ohio’s tests to graduate debated
MELISSA GRIFFY SEETON
REPOSITORY EDUCATION WRITER

CANTON - Ohio spends more than $20 million each year on tests seniors must pass to graduate from high school.
Some neighboring states spend a fifth of that. Others don’t give the tests at all.

Locals are questioning whether high-stakes tests — not a requirement of the No Child Left Behind Act — are the best way to spend education dollars and to measure what students know when they get out of high school.

SHOW ME THE MONEY

Most of Ohio’s neighboring states have no graduation test. Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia don’t require them for graduation.

And among states that do require them, Indiana spends about $4.2 million to test its 10th-graders, about one fifth what Ohio spends.

“There are a number of debates about how effective graduation tests are, and if it should be a requirement for graduation,” said Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education.

According to the Center on Education Policy — an education advocacy group in Washington D.C. — mandatory exit exams are having a “major impact” on students nationwide. Within the next six years, about 72 percent of all American public school students will be required to take exit exams.

WHAT DO THE TESTS SHOW?

The federal No Child Left Behind Act, enacted in 2002, requires states to give assessment tests annually to every student in grades 3 through 8 in reading and math. Students also must be tested at least once in reading and math in 10th through 12th grades, and science will become a required testing area in 2007-08. Other than that, said Elaine Quesinberry, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, “it is each state’s responsibility to determine their students’ graduation requirements.”

Ohio lawmakers authorized the dual use of the Ohio Graduation Test to meet No Child’s mandates and to make the tests a requirement for graduation. So, beginning this week, high school students will be tested in five subject areas — reading, math, writing, science and social studies — and must pass all five to graduate.

GROWING TREND

Nationwide, 23 states have graduation exams and at least three more are phasing them in by 2012, according to the Center on Education Policy. But costs vary widely, and how the tests are structured varies even more.

Mary Tiede Wilhelmus, director of communications for the Indiana Department of Education, said her state spends $30 million to test grades 3 through 8 and to administer the graduation test. The $4.2 million share that goes to test the high-schoolers is only about one-seventh of what Ohio spends each year to do the same thing.

But J.C. Benton, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education, said his department suspects other states aren’t reporting all costs related to the tests.

ACT VS. OGT

Michigan’s Department of Education is making the ACT — one of the two national college entrance exams — its state graduation test. Spokesman Martin Ackley said students also will take a test that assesses work readiness, the WorkKeys Test — also through ACT. Michigan estimates it will spend $14.9 million annually on the tests. One bonus, though, is that students get to take the college entrance test — which costs $29 for basic registration — for free, and even get a free retake.

ACT has limits, though; Michigan will have to provide supplements for science and social studies because the ACT doesn’t match Michigan state standards in those subjects.

Ohio Superintendent Susan Tave Zelman says the ACT is not an option for Ohio.

For one thing, she said, it would be too expensive, because Ohio would have to supplement the test as Michigan does. But even with Michigan’s supplements, the state estimates it will spend $5 million less than what Ohio spends on its separate Ohio Graduation Test.

So why does Ohio choose to use the $20 million-a-year test provided by Measurement of North Carolina?

Many reasons, said Zelman: The tests align with Ohio standards, accommodate special-needs students, and include special versions such as foreign language translations.

“I believe the ACT would really provide a mismatch between what we teach and what is tested,” Zelman said. “We are working very hard ... to give teachers the tools they need to help drive academic achievement for children. What we want to do is align what we teach and how we assess.”

Because Ohio uses its own test, it can give teachers more specific information needed to help children improve, Zelman added.

The ACT serves a different purpose, she said: to test students similarly across the nation and predict how well they’ll do in their first year of college.

“People see this (ACT) as a very simple solution, but I don’t think they’ve delved into the complexities of it.”

ACT ADVOCATES

Not everyone agrees with Zelman. W. Don Reader, a retired 5th District Court of Appeals judge and chairman of the Stark Education Partnership, testified before the Ohio Senate Education Committee last year about the importance of a seamless transition from preschool through college. He wants to see the graduation test waived for students in Stark County’s 17 public school districts and the ACT used instead.

“The OGT is of no value except for high school. It is a mind boggler to me why Ohio would pay out millions of dollars to develop the OGT, when the ACT already exists,” Reader contended.

Reader and Dianne Talarico, Canton City Schools superintendent and member of Gov. Bob Taft’s Partnership for Continued Learning, say they would like to see Stark County pilot the ACT for the state, and have asked Taft to make that happen.

Reader said the state Department of Education hasn’t been encouraging; “We were advised that waivers would be necessary, but that no waivers would be given.”

Benton, the state department’s spokesman, said it’s unclear whether a waiver could be given because state law requires the Ohio Graduation Test.

Still, Talarico says the ACT is the best option. Others share her view.

Last month, a bill was introduced by Kentucky legislators to mandate students take the ACT as part of the state’s No Child assessment test. It’s following the lead of Illinois and Colorado. And both those states are reporting higher rates of low-income and minority students’ attending college.

“It’s the passport to college,” Talarico said. “It has national merit, and I think it provides (ways for) students to be looked at in an equitable way.”TEST detractors

Some have reservations about using any standardized test as a make-or-break for graduation. Pennsylvania requires students to take an assessment test under No Child Left Behind, but they needn’t pass it to graduate. The Pennsylvania Board of Education is considering attaching more consequences to the test, said Mike Storm, assistant press secretary for the department, but “there is a lot of concern over making the test high-stakes.”

And in Ohio late last year, the state discovered errors by Measurement in grading the Ohio Graduation Tests. Those affected 1,599 students statewide. Twelve of Stark County’s 17 schools districts were affected, and at least one student in Alliance and two in Canton City schools are expected to graduate with their classes next year because their test scores moved from “basic” to “proficient.”

The tests are being challenged in other states, as well. Earlier this year, 20 high school seniors and their parents sued the California Department of Education, which initiated high-stakes testing this year. The students and their families claim the test is illegal and discriminatory because it includes no alternatives for students who don’t speak English as a second language.

TESTING THE TEST

On the other hand, at least one nonprofit organization says high school exit exams in Ohio and five other states might not be tough enough.

According to a recent report by Achieve — created by governors and business leaders to raise achievement in public schools — high school exit exams measure math at a level other countries teach in middle school, and English at a level below college admissions standards.

That, said state Sen. Kirk Schuring, R-Jackson Township, is another thing in the ACT’s favor.

“There was a day, years and years ago, when it was important what a student was taught,” Schuring said. “Today it is important what a student learns.

“The ACT is the standard by which a student is (evaluated) for college. ... Why we should reinvent the wheel to create another one doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.”

Reach Repository writer Melissa Griffy Seeton at (330) 580-8318 or e-mail: melissa.griffy@cantonrep.com


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