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New law would ignore test failures and award belated high school diplomas to 8,000

The Georgia General Assembly is about to change the lives of 8,000 people never able to graduate high school because they failed part of the Georgia High School Graduation Test.

House Education Chair Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, is the sponsor of a bill that frees former Georgia high school students from having to pass the GHSGT to earn their diplomas.  You can read House Bill 91 here. The bill is expected to pass both chambers.

The GHSGT dates back to 1991 when the Legislature voted to phase in a high school exit exam that would put teeth into the rising rhetoric of holding students accountable for basic academic knowledge. But the GHSGT was eventually deemed lacking and is no longer given, replaced by the End of Course Test. (The EOCT is being replaced by Georgia Milestones, but that’s another story.)

But failures on the test cast a long shadow.

Today, an estimated 8,000 Georgians still lack a diploma on their wall because of the test. They can appeal for a waiver to the state Board of Education and 400 to 500 do each month, according to the Department of Education’s Garry McGiboney, who testified at a House hearing Wednesday.

But McGiboney said Georgia’s appeal process is onerous as applicants must prove hardship or disability to win a waiver. (Other states have much simpler waiver processes that consider grades and attendance.)

At the hearing, Coleman said it is not fair to tell parents, “Yes, your child has to pass a test that is no longer required.”

DOE retired the test with the class that began high school in 2011.

At the time, Superintendent John Barge said, "I don't believe the GHSGT is nearly as good an indicator of how much a student has learned as our End-of-Course Tests. The EOCTs are much more rigorous, and they test a student immediately following a course, rather than waiting until a student's junior year to determine whether or not he or she has mastered the content of our curriculum."

In its own study of the value of GHSGT in predicting how Georgia high school graduates would perform in college, the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement found, “Students who score higher on the High School Graduation Test have roughly the same college GPA as students who scored much lower.”

With the GHSGT, students had to pass writing, mathematics, English language arts, social studies and science. Students took the GHSGT for the first time in the spring of their junior year and could retake it as many times as necessary. They could not receive a full diploma if they didn’t pass all parts. Each test was scored from 100-300, and students had to earn at least 200 points to pass each exam.

Science proved the toughest hurdle. In some years, more than 20,000 students failed science. The statewide failure rate in science could be four and five times higher than in English and three times higher than in math.

Coleman shared an email from a Whitfield County mother whose daughter could not pass science or social studies. Now 29, the woman had a 3.6 grade point average in high school, which meant she qualified for the HOPE Scholarship. But, the mother wrote, “This has followed my daughter her entire life. What a glorious, happy day to see her get her diploma and stop being passed over.”

The tenor of the discussion Wednesday was interesting; lawmakers seemed apologetic students had to pass these tests.  “Our poor students were asked to do things that I think were impossible for some of them to have to do,” said Coleman.

“We have students who made A’s and B’s and 3.5 averages; they did all the requirements for graduation, and many have not passed one or two of the tests by one or two points,” said Coleman. “There are kids who took the test 22 to 33 times to try and get their diplomas.”

One affected student spoke at the hearing.

An Eagle Scout from Forsyth County’s Lambert High School, the 19-year-old described his efforts to pass the math test, including two-months of tutoring. (The math became a greater hurdle once Georgia raised its math standards and adopted an integrated approach for which not all teachers were adequately trained.)

The state board denied the young man’s waiver applications. He told the committee the lack of a high school diploma is blocking his plan to go to Lanier Technical College to train in physical therapy.

While he got close on this last try – a score of 185 – the teen still didn't achieve the pass score of 200. House Bill 91 will not only allow him to go to college, but go with HOPE because he posted a 3.4 high school GPA.

“A lot of students will probably be eligible for HOPE if we just give them hope,” said Coleman. “I have never seen a bill have a positive impact on so many citizens in Georgia.”

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.