Sunday, June 13, 2004

Fine-tuning the Ohio exit exam

Although Ohioans are a year away from the first official results of the new Ohio Graduation Test, interim reports show that school districts and state education officials face more homework.

However, so do state and federal legislators.

Two trial runs of the test, which is given to 10th-graders, have produced disappointing scores. In 2003, 66 percent of students passed the reading test and 24 percent passed math. This year, 78 percent passed reading and 68 passed math.

To be fair, scores generally dip with new tests because curriculum must be realigned to it. And the new exam is widely acknowledged to be significantly tougher than the Ohio Ninth-Grade Proficiency Test it replaces, so it should be expected to produce lower scores. But more troubling than the schools' initial performance is a new study that says - like exit tests across the nation - the Ohio exam still isn't as rigorous as it should be and doesn't adequately address skills students will need for college.

The study by Achieve, Inc., an organization developed by the nation's governors and business leaders to raise academic standards, showed that graduation tests in Ohio and five other states generally cover junior-high mathematics material and 8th- or 9th-grade language arts. Because the Ohio exam tests 10th-graders, it isn't grossly out of step, Achieve leaders say, but to genuinely prepare students for college, it should include more challenging content. Kentucky has no graduation test. Indiana will update its Graduation Qualifying Test this fall.

No one is saying Ohio is a slacker - in fact, Achieve president Michael Cohen praised the state for voluntarily taking part in the Achieve study and for moving to an exam that's substantially tougher than the proficiency tests. He - and most education reformers nationwide - just want more rigor.

And they're right - with one gaping problem in the perfect, seemingly endless spiral of higher standards and higher performance.

Somewhere in the middle of all this achievement are students who cannot meet such high standards. They are students with legitimate disabilities, who hard as they may try, will never master the material.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act is right to say special-needs students deserve high expectations and rich instruction. But it is wrong - and naive - to say that most must pass the same graduation test and meet the same standards as students of normal and high ability.

So can Ohio - or any state - get it right both ways? With No Child legislation looming, can it adequately challenge all students and unfairly penalize none?

Therein lies the homework. State education officials and school districts should realize their job isn't finished with the Ohio Graduation Tests.

It is essential to challege students more rigorously. But state and federal legislators must move beyond the rhetoric of reform - where high standards are the only ones worth shooting for - to a more realistic world where children don't come in one size and success is not a single score.

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