Exit Exam Costs S.C. Taxpayers $3.5 Million-Plus Yearly

April 22, 2013

Investigative Reports

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High School TestA state House bill would end a longstanding requirement that high school students pass an exit exam to graduate, though students would still have to take the test, which costs S.C. taxpayers more than $3.5 million annually.

The state has a five-year contract with Minnesota-based Data Recognition Corporation to print and score the test forms for the High School Assessment Program (HSAP), said Jay Ragley, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Education, in an email last week to The Nerve. The contract, which is set to expire on Oct. 21, also requires the company to “aggregate the data and validate the data,” he said.

The Department of Education designed the exit exam; Data Recognition Corporation was chosen through a “competitive bidding process,” Ragley said.

The total cost of the HSAP program for this fiscal year, which started July 1, is $3,629,406, he said.

“(The cost) is pretty stable year to year under the current contract,” Ragley said. “There may be a variance of 1 (to) 2 percent, positive or negative, depending on enrollment growth or decline.”

Data Recognition Corporation, founded in 1978, describes itself on its website as a “full-service information management company” with more than 600 full-time and 4,000 seasonal and temporary workers in 14 locations around the country. It has three business units: the K-12 education sector, federal and state government, and commercial clients, according to its website.

The K-12 Education Subcommittee of the S.C. House Education and Public Works Committee last week approved a bill (H. 3919), sponsored by Rep. Phil Owens, R-Pickens and the education committee chairman, that would end the state requirement that high school students pass an exit exam to receive their diploma.

The bill also would allow students who previously failed the exam to re-enroll in high school without having to pass the test to graduate.

Ragley said under the bill, the test would continue to be given annually, noting it is a “significant component of school and school district letter grades and state report card ratings.”

The Department of Education estimates a $400,000 savings in Education Improvement Act (EIA) funds with the bill, though the agency was “unable to quantify the potential costs of the re-enrolled students,” according to a fiscal impact analysis done by the Office of State Budget. EIA funds are derived from 1 cent of the six-cent state sales tax.

The redundancy of the exit exam has long been in question, according to Scott Price, chief lawyer for the South Carolina School Boards Association.

“We are basically supportive of (the bill),” Price told The Nerve last week. “If the student has obtained the course requirement, I’m not sure how necessary it is for them to take the exit exam,” he said.

Ultimately, he said, “We’d like to see the exit exam go away altogether,” adding, “We test students entirely too much.”

Twenty-six states, including South Carolina, currently have or are planning to implement an exit exam that students must pass to receive a high school diploma. The HSAP is comprised of two parts: an English language arts (ELA) test – reading and writing – and a mathematics test.

The mathematics and ELA portions have four achievement levels, with Level 4 being the highest level. South Carolina requires students to score at least a Level 2 on each section to pass the exam. Students take the exam during the second semester of their sophomore year; there are six chances to pass.

The percentage of students passing on their first try rose to 80.1 percent last year from 76.4 percent in 2009, Department of Education records show. More students (17.8 percent) failed the math portion of the exam last year compared to the ELA part (10.8 percent).

Contacted last week by The Nerve, Rep. Andy Patrick, R-Beaufort and chairman of the K-12 Education Subcommittee, said the exit exam is not necessarily the most effective way to measure a student’s comprehension.

“We’re required to have student assessment by No Child Left Behind,” said Patrick, referring to the 2001 federal law that aims to close achievement gaps in public schools nationwide.

Patrick, a co-sponsor of H. 3919, said the General Assembly is looking for better ways to gauge academic achievement, with special attention to those with cognitive disabilities as well as those who “just don’t test well.”

“More and more states are getting away from these exams,” he said. “We’re just trying to do whatever we can creatively to get this state to not hold those behind that would otherwise be successful if it weren’t for the exit exam.”

H. 3919 was approved unanimously Wednesday by the education subcommittee and is now before the full committee. The legislation is on Tuesday’s meeting agenda of the full committee; the meeting is scheduled for 3 p.m. in Room 433 of the Blatt Building on the State House grounds.

Reach Weston at (803) 254-4411 or kelli@thenerve.org. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter @thenervesc.