PORTLAND, Ore. – When Oregon education officials set out to devise a graduation testing requirement for high school students, they looked to other states for inspiration — on what not to do.
In neighboring California, dropout rates soared the first year the state required high schoolers to pass a test to get their diploma. In Texas, 40,000 disgruntled students were dispatched to summer school in 2007 after not passing the state test. And in Washington state, lawmakers simply canceled plans to require exiting students to pass a single, comprehensive math test, after fears surfaced that thousands wouldn't measure up.
"We didn't think any one test should determine whether someone gets a diploma," said Duncan Wyse, vice-chairman of the Oregon Board of Education.
So board members chose a different route. This week, they approved a a plan that lets students pick from three options: a national test, state assessments or a local version, such as a student portfolio, to show colleges and employers they have mastered reading, writing, applied math and speaking skills. Passage on any one of the three, along with fulfilling course requirements, would guarantee a diploma.
The plan makes Oregon one of several states moving past the "one-size-fits-all" high-stakes testing that became commonplace in many U.S. high schools in the 1990s. In Pennsylvania, the Board of Education is considering a three-pronged approach similar to Oregon's plan, while in Maryland, students who can't pass the state tests could be allowed to do a senior project instead.
But some say such choices allow some students — and states — to take the easy way out.
Daria Hall, assistant director for K-12 policy at Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for poor and minority children, points to New Jersey, where up to 80 percent of students at high schools in poor cities like Newark and Camden receive alternative diplomas after not passing the state tests. The number falls to about 3 percent in wealthy areas like Princeton, N.J., she said.
In most states, she said, the exit exams test skills students learned in ninth and tenth grades. That's basic enough, she said, that there should be no need for the safety net of alternate assessments, which can be put in place for political cover.
"These young people want to walk across the stage with their friends and their classmates," she said. "But why isn't there the same level of outrage that students were not able to pass these basic competency assessments in the first place?"
Oregon school board members, though, say they'll work hard to ensure that the local option, with local teachers judging their own students, doesn't become an easy way out.
"We will provide a common scoring guide, and review students' work to make sure there is consistency," with periodic spot-checks, Wyse said.
The trend is definitely moving away from a single, high-stakes test, said Jack Jennings, president of the Center for Education Policy in Washington, D.C., especially in states that have long traditions of local control for school districts.
There's also the No Child Left Behind factor, he noted. That's the Bush administration's education reform law, which has required yearly testing from grades 3-8 and in grade 10, with consequences for schools where enough students don't make progress. The law is unpopular with many teachers and principals, and has sparked a backlash against testing that didn't exist a decade or so ago when most states were considering exit exams, he said.
That's not to say that high stakes tests are totally out of fashion. Twenty-three states required the class of 2008 to pass tests to graduate from high school. Most states give students multiple chances to take the tests and many, including California, have set aside millions of dollars to pay for remedial coursework aimed at getting more students to pass the tests.
Still, John Warren, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, who has done extensive research on exit exams, said his research has proved few tangible benefits and suggested that testing requirements will result in more dropouts.
"There is no empirical evidence about whether alternate formats will result in better outcomes than one-size-fits-all," he said. "Unless there are additional resources for things like summer school, you are still relying on motivation alone."