WASHINGTON - Ohio's requirement that high school students pass a proficiency test before graduation is one of the best such programs in the nation, according to the first national study of the growing trend to mandate such tests.
In Ohio and Indiana, 98 percent of students who complete course and attendance requirements eventually pass the graduation exams and receive a diploma, although that does not include transfer students, students who have to repeat senior year, dropouts, or students excluded from testing because of disability or language problems.
Like 17 other states, Ohio adopted proficiency exams as an effort to make a high school diploma stand for a certain level of knowledge.
In Toledo, nearly all current 12th graders had passed the ninth-grade tests by May, having been able to take the tests throughout high school. The percentage of ninth graders who passed each subject by the end of the last academic year were: writing, 92 percent; reading, 92 percent; math, 55 percent; citizenship, 77 percent citizenship; and science, 66 percent, according to the Ohio Department of Education.
Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a foundation-funded Washington-based group that advocates better public education, said Ohio's state leaders are being inconsistent when they demand more rigorous testing and at the same time fight the state Supreme Court's ruling to spend more money on education.
“You have state leaders saying they expect students to know more and yet fighting the Supreme Court ruling directing them to spend more on education. That seems to be inconsistent,'' he said.
The 147-page study, released by the Center on Education Policy yesterday, found that 18 states enrolling half of all public school students nationwide require high school seniors to pass exams to qualify for graduation and that within six years 70 percent of all American public school students will have to take such tests.
But the policy will mean that many minority, impoverished, and disabled students will fail and that states need to develop standards to deal with that, according to the study.
The study points out that a problem with the tests is where to draw the cutoff between what is a passing grade and what is not. Another problem is making sure the tests reflect the knowledge and skills being taught.
Mr. Jennings said: “You can't expect kids to know more and teachers to teach more without more time in class and more training. That means you have to expand the school day and the school year, and that costs.
“But it's not just spending money. It has to be spent in a smart way. If the budget squeeze continues for one more year, states will be in trouble [in funding education].''
He said the message of the report about graduation tests is “proceed with caution.''
Ohio began administering ninth-grade proficiency tests in 1990 covering reading, writing, mathematics, and citizenship. Last year's class was the first to have to take a science component as well. Next year's tests - the Ohio Graduation Tests - will be more difficult and will be given in the 10th grade, but the first class that must pass them to graduate will be the class of 2007.
In the 18 states with graduation exams, between 9 and 69 percent of students failed the math test on the first try and between 5 and 42 percent failed the English-language arts tests.
“In addition,'' the report said, “African-American and Hispanic students are significantly more likely to fail exit exams on their first try than Asian-American and white students.''
Ohio is one of 22 states the NAACP has targeted for not yet responding to its request to submit plans to work on reducing the test-score gaps between the races.
Nancy Kober, a writer and education consultant who works with the center and Keith Gayler, its associate director, said that states should not require such high-stakes, pass-or-fail tests without a careful phase-in period and without spending the time and money to get students ready for them.
After that, they said, states have to be willing to spend money on remediation to help students who failed the tests either study to pass them or provide alternative ways for students to graduate.
States should use a combination of grades, attendance, teacher recommendations, and graduation exams in deciding who gets a diploma, they suggested.
Mr. Jennings said that as more states move to such tests, inevitably there will be more student dropouts.
Mr. Gayler said that one reason Ohio's testing earned praise from the researchers is that as Ohio moved to proficiency testing, it permitted a phase-in period so parents and students could get used to the tests and that the state established reciprocity agreements with other states, such as Maryland, to help students who move.
Indiana was the other state to be singled out for praise because, Mr. Gayler said, it targets money for remediation for students who fail the test the first time and has different tracks for students depending on what courses they study.
Michigan does not require passage of a test to receive a high school diploma.
In Alaska, Georgia, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Utah, students who complete their course work but fail the exam may earn a “certificate of attendance'' but not a diploma.
After leaving school they may take the tests again until they pass.
In Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Mississippi students may graduate even if they fail the exam if they get letters from their teachers and have acceptable grades in their courses.
New York and Virginia permit schools to use substitute tests such as the SAT II or an International Baccalaureate.
The No Child Left Behind Act passed by Congress does not mandate graduation exams but requires states to do annual tests in grades three through eight and requires states to test students at least once during high school.
Mr. Jennings, who said he has been visiting states to see how they are getting ready, said he found most states don't yet understand what they have to do to comply with the law.
Fifteen states now require graduating students to write some form of essay and by 2008, 22 states are expected to require writing.
A third of states now use graduation exams to assess science and/or social studies knowledge beyond math and language skills. About half the states are expected to be testing science and/or social studies by 2008.
The 18 states that require graduation exams are Ohio, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. States that are phasing in exit exams but not yet withholding diplomas are Arkansas, Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Utah, and Washington.
The full report is available on the Web at www.cep-dc.org.