How hard is the test? Who are these failing students? Are policies regarding the exam too lenient?
Lawmakers are pondering that last question before convening for the 2008 Legislature. Some are dismayed students can receive a diploma without passing the test. Others have sought exemptions for students with disabilities or limited English.
"Every year we have a bill proposed that talks about giving the state Board [of Education] some latitude" but "it's always very broad and never gets out of committee," said Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, House chairman of the Education Interim Committee.
A presentation during last week's Education Interim Committee meeting summarized strategies adopted in other states. Lawmakers want to accommodate mental or linguistic handicaps without creating loopholes for everyone else. In the meantime, state and district officials are working to get a better sense of who's not passing and why.
In May, the Utah State Office of Education released results of the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test (UBSCT), the state's high school exit exam. Students have five chances to take the reading, writing and math portions, starting in 10th grade. Three or more flubbed attempts to pass any one section results in a diploma noting the failure. In 2007, only 74 percent of Utah seniors passed all three sections. The fate of the other 26 percent is far from clear.
Some likely dropped out or didn't show up on test day. Most struggle with English or have disabilities. Some have severe disabilities and took an alternative assessment. Many met graduation requirements and received the footnoted diploma.
In the Davis School District, 15 percent of seniors failed to pass the exit exam. Of those, 4.4 percent received diplomas and roughly 6 percent were youth in custody, or were participants in Job Corps or other programs outside high schools, assessment supervisor Jeff Williams said. Of 3.4 percent of students who didn't pass and didn't graduate (169 students), more than half were disabled or learning English, he said.
Unfortunately, few districts can paint such a clear picture. Many can't say how many students graduate without passing the exit exam because they don't ask high schools to report that data. And district stats seem at odds with state numbers.
Pass rates in the state's four largest school districts - Alpine, Granite, Jordan and Davis, which enroll more than half of Utah's students - range from 81 percent to 92 percent. Even Salt Lake City district, which is smaller and has far more minority students, saw 77 percent of students pass. So it's unclear how the state average could be so low.
Part of the problem lies in trying to track students. School enrollment numbers fluctuate as students move, enroll part-time, skip classes for weeks on end or drop out. The state calculates percentages based on October enrollment, but many districts count seniors in the spring.
So kids who left school halfway through the year end up in the state's "failed to pass" column but not in most districts'. (Davis district is one exception because it counts all seniors who ever sat in a district school last year.) Also, students who mastered another state's exit exam get a "pass" from districts but may not be counted by the state, Davis and Jordan officials said. State assessment officials were unavailable for comment last week.
The state won a $4.6 million federal grant this month to improve student data tracking among districts and the state. The new system should make it easier for state and district officials to follow the fate of all students, including those struggling with exit exams, said Jo Ellen Killpack, Salt Lake City School District's supervisor of accountability and student performance.
As educators learn more about the students who aren't passing, policies might change to ensure the test is fair. Legislators already are discussing whether to make allowances for students with certain handicaps and have started by looking at other states. At least 22 states require students to pass high school exit exams and at least four more will do so by 2012, according to an analysis presented by Connie Steffan, legislative policy analyst.
But Utah isn't one of them, because seniors can receive diplomas without passing. That discovery infuriated legislators who believe they passed a law withholding diplomas from those who don't pass the exit exam.
Nine states measure competency using some other test or classroom evaluation or allow an alternative exam for kids who don't test well.
Two states waive exit exam requirements for kids who've been learning English for fewer than three years. And many states make allowances for special education students - including lowering the bar or allowing special testing conditions.
A time crunch didn't allow legislators to discuss the report, but they'll likely return to it at a future meeting before the 2008 session, several said.
"We're hopeful that a reasonable bill looking at some of the inequities could be addressed without giving carte blanche to eliminate [the exam]," Hughes said.
* NICOLE STRICKER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-257-8999.
* Lawmakers mandated the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test (UBSCT) to ensure that graduates demonstrate basic skills.
* Tests include reading, writing and math segments. Students have five chances to pass all three segments, starting in 10th grade.
* Students who have completed all graduation requirements can still graduate without having passed the exam, but diplomas note whether all sections of the test have been passed.