In the opening scene of the 1998 movie Primary Colors, a southern governor modeled after Bill Clinton was campaigning for the Democratic primary when he stopped by an adult literacy program. There he met “Dewayne,” a dyslexic short-order chef who had been let down by the public education system. “Until I come here,” he told the governor, “I couldn't read a lick. They just kept passing me up. Third grade, fourth grade. I just sit in the back, sticking to my own self. It was like no one noticed.”
It was stories like these, repeated a million times over, that led governors in the 1980s and ‘90s to set standards in reading and math, and to start to hold schools accountable for helping their students meet them. The same impulse led states to set more rigorous graduation requirements, so that nobody would leave high school without basic literacy and numeracy skills. This was a bipartisan effort, with leaders such as New Jersey’s Tom Kean and Christine Todd Whitman paving the way. It was, in the words of President George W. Bush, an effort to end “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
This blast from the past is important to remember now because there are advocacy organizations calling for the outright elimination of the exit exams, based on the notion that these exams disproportionately affect minority and low-income students. The “soft bigotry” may be creeping back in.
In fairness, the politicians aren’t to blame, at least not yet. In December, an appellate judge struck down New Jersey’s graduation exams because they don’t conform precisely to state law. That sent the governor, education commissioner, and legislators scrambling for a solution. The current plan is to allow today’s juniors and seniors to graduate regardless of whether they actually took the graduation test as long as they meet alternative requirements, and to somehow find — by next year — a suitable new test to administer to today’s sophomores.
Given the vagaries of state procurement — and the long timeline for developing new, high-quality tests — there’s a serious possibility that this approach will result in a class of students graduating without needing to demonstrate their academic preparedness. Or even more absurd, the New Jersey Department of Education might give next year’s 11th graders the same test that they are required to take this spring to meet federal testing requirements. Making students take the same test two years in a row is hardly what the public had in mind when it voiced its support for less testing!
Thankfully, a better solution is at hand. A bill that has passed the state Senate and is working its way through the Assembly would change the law to allow New Jersey to continue to use its current, high-quality assessments as graduation requirements. It would also “grandfather” in today’s juniors and seniors, while reinstating some clarity and predictability for sophomores and the students coming up behind them. And it would ensure that New Jersey does not return indefinitely, perhaps permanently, to the practice of letting students graduate even if they can’t read their own diplomas.
Some might think that it’s unfair to withhold diplomas from students who can’t pass the state tests, especially young people coming from challenging circumstances. But that’s exactly backwards. If we want to help the Dewaynes of the world, and ensure that schools help them build the academic skills critical to their success, we need to maintain high expectations. The good news — from New Jersey as well as top-performing states like Massachusetts — is that when we set a high bar, and focus on helping students clear it, our kids, our educators, and our schools rise to meet the challenge. Now is no time to give up.