Graduation Exams: Closing the Barn Door?

There is widespread and understandable concern about the high percentage of Pennsylvania’s high school graduates who are deficient in reading, writing, quantitative and reasoning skills. Anecdotal survey results show that only 7 percent of businesses polled are very confident that state graduates have the skills to enter the workplace. Little wonder the state education establishment and business leaders support a graduation exam that must be passed before a regular diploma can be awarded.

While the idea of people showing they have mastered skills sufficient to earn a diploma sounds quite reasonable, in the case of public, compulsory education with social promotion the norm, it is just a pipe dream. It is simply not reasonable to expect that a student who has been pushed on to the next grade regardless of academic achievement for eleven and a half years is going to be able to master twelfth grade level math and reading skills in time to take a test. When they fail the test and fail the re-test, is the school district going to deny them a diploma? Not likely. Lawsuits from the ACLU or other organizations would be on their doorsteps almost instantly.

The problem must be dealt with much earlier. For example, tests should be given at the end of each school year to measure progress. No one would be passed along to higher grades if they fail the tests. Remedial efforts over the summer or in after school programs at an early age would be far more beneficial.

Moreover, tests should not be limited to reading and math. Students should have to know something and be tested on it as well. By high school they should know basic science, some history and geography. By eleventh grade they should know U.S. history, civics, some literature, and economics. Producing students who can do math and read but are virtual ignoramuses is not true education.

If the state wants to get serious about improving education it must be willing to tackle the difficult issues head on. Any school district or school with more than 25 percent of students failing to show proficiency on the year-end tests for two years running would be taken over by the state. Parents of the students would be given the choice of staying in the state managed school or given a voucher for 75 percent of the per pupil spending in that school to be used at the non-public school of their choice.

In state managed schools, no teacher or administrator would be retained after the current contract was complete. All would have to reapply for jobs and be hired on the basis of competency and proven performance. The threat of losing jobs might act as an inducement to do a better job during the remaining years on the contract. Of course, this is a pipe dream as well. The PSEA and other unions and their allies in the Legislature will never allow meaningful reform.

Graduation exams are just the latest diversion to make the public think something is actually being done that will improve Pennsylvania’s education performance.