New graduation requirements stir debate over the value of test scores

Beginning this school year, Idaho students are no longer required to pass standardized tests or meet benchmark scores on college-entrance exams to graduate from high school, even though they are still required to take the tests whether they are college-bound or not. 

The test scores will not affect graduation, but they will be used to measure teacher performance and school quality. Which has some educators worried that teacher pay, promotions and job security will hinge on tests that some teenagers won’t take seriously.  

“Many kids just won’t try their hardest,” said South Fremont High School principal Larry Bennett.

Some educators also question the prudence of making all kids take college entrance exams, when fewer than half of Idaho’s high school graduates go on to college. The state picks up the tab for high school juniors to take the SAT each year, at an annual price tag of about $1 million.

State officials have two strategic reasons for requiring the tests, but not requiring passage:

  1. They say many teens might be unfamiliar with the newer standards tied to Idaho’s standardized test, the Idaho Standards Achievement Test (ISAT), and that parents are concerned about their kids having to pass an unfamiliar exam in order to graduate.
  2. Requiring students to take college entrance exams is a calculated step toward improving Idaho’s lagging college go-on rates.

Students give the new graduation requirements mixed reviews. Some say they are overtested and robbed of valuable learning time. Others say testing motivates them to work harder and to be better prepared for life after high school.

“I still try my best whether there is a minimum requirement or not,” said Rigby High School senior Marie Maw. “Besides trying to get the best scores for college, (the tests) help students, teachers, school boards and more decide what needs to be done to help students learn and thrive.”

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Idaho’s high school graduation requirements

Passing the ISAT is no longer a graduation requirement, but here are the state’s minimum requirements. (Districts can add additional criteria.)

  • Classroom credits: Students must earn at least 46 high school credits, with 29 coming from core content areas such as math, English and the sciences. The remaining 17 credits can be electives.
  • College entrance exam: Students must take either the SAT or the American College Test (ACT) before the end of their junior year. Students receiving special education services through an individualized education plan (IEP) can take the Accuplacer placement exam in lieu of the SAT or ACT.
  • Senior project: School districts set specific guidelines, but projects must include at least a written report and an oral presentation.
  • Civics and government proficiency test: Starting in 2017, state law requires students to take — and pass — a civics exam based on the U.S. citizenship test. Districts have wide latitude in creating the test, and students can take it as often as possible until they pass.
  • Advanced opportunity: Districts must offer at least one advanced opportunity, such as a dual credit or advanced placement course, though kids don’t have to take part in such offerings in order to graduate.
  • Pre-algebra requirement: Students must complete pre-algebra before their freshman year of high school.
  • Learning plan:  By the end of the 8th grade, students must develop a parent-approved student learning plan for their high school and post-high school options. The plan must be reviewed annually and can be revised.

Idaho’s high school graduation rate ranked No. 39 nationally in 2014-15, according to U.S. Department of Education numbers. But it’s hard to compare the rigors of requirements across state lines, because states have different yardsticks for graduation, including testing options and credit-hour requirements.

For example, New Jersey, which graduated 89.7 of its students in 2014-15, requires students to either meet certain college-readiness benchmarks or submit a student learning portfolio. But the state allows for a wider range of testing options than Idaho does, including both the SAT and ACT, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Accuplacer exams.

Kentucky, which graduated 88 percent of its students in 2014-15, requires kids to take either the SAT or ACT, and demonstrate “four standards-based learning experiences in an academic or career interest based on the student’s individual learning plan.”

The ISAT debate

Educators say scrapping the ISAT as a graduation requirement will strip students of their incentive to do well on the test, which could foul up accountability efforts and worsen already flat scores. Some have even suggested dropping the test altogether.

“We already have the SAT,” said Bennett. “It’s what colleges are looking for and can provide all the data we need.”

But the ISAT is likely here to stay, because it tests students on Common Core standards, and federal law requires states to administer a test aligned to academic standards. The test, given to all kids in grades 4-8 and once in high school, is used to measure growth and achievement.

But in November, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra said parents were uneasy about tying graduation to a single test, let alone one still being tweaked to align with Common Core. In January, the Senate Education Committee rescinded language requiring students to pass the ISAT to graduate. The rule change applies to the class of 2018 and beyond.

Senate Education chairman Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, echoed Ybarra’s concern about a high-stakes ISAT, but said the test scores are critical to lawmakers.

“These tests are the best tools we have right now to hold the education community accountable,” Mortimer said.

Students interviewed by EdNews have mixed feelings.

Rigby’s Maw says she might do better on a low-stakes exam.

“It feels a lot easier to me because I don’t have to stress,” she said.

But Luisa Graden, a 2016 Moscow High School graduate, took the test two years ago and said it conflicted with classroom learning. 

“There was no incentive to perform well. In fact, the opposite was true. By putting in your effort, you had to miss valuable class time,” Graden said.

The SAT debate

Bennett suggests replacing the ISAT with the SAT, but also says requiring the SAT robs juniors of other applicable testing options, and ultimately bogs down test scores. 

According to Education Week, Idaho is one of 25 states that requires students to take the SAT or ACT to graduate. But because the state covers the cost, the SAT has emerged as the mainstay college-entrance exam. Last school year, 19,323 students took it, for an 89 percent participation rate. 

“If only our college-bound kids took the SAT, like in many other states, our scores would improve dramatically,” Bennett said.

State leaders say the lower SAT scores are the price Idaho pays to get more kids to take a preliminary step toward college. But the strategy doesn’t appear to be working. Idaho’s first-year college go-on rates dipped below 50 percent in 2016, capping off a two-year downward trend.  

State leaders aren’t talking about backing off the SAT. Instead, they want to increase the stakes. Idaho’s higher education task force is considering a goal to see that 60 percent of high school juniors meet the SAT’s college- and career-readiness benchmarks by 2022-23.

The latest SAT numbers reveal a large gap in reaching that goal.

Sixty percent of test-takers did meet college- and career-readiness benchmark on the verbal portion of the test last school year, but only 34 percent of students hit the college-readiness benchmark in math. And just 32 percent of juniors met both of these benchmarks in 2016-17, down from 33 percent the year before. (Click here for EdNews reporter Kevin Richert’s analysis of Idaho’s latest SAT scores.)

With so many kids opting out of college, the state should accommodate a wider variety of exams, Bennett said

“Why not simply provide some more options?” he said. “Not every student is planning on college.”