Thoughts on Graduation Requirements | Charleston Area Community Voice for EducationCharleston Area Community Voice for Education

Thoughts on Graduation Requirements | Charleston Area Community Voice for EducationCharleston Area Community Voice for Education.

Ending Exit Exams a Start, But Not Enough

As the first decade of the twenty-first century drew to an end, Frederick Douglass High School (Maryland) stood as a contradiction of social history, education and racial promise, the claimed failures of public schools, and the essential flaws in high-stakes accountability.

Focusing on Douglass High, documentarians Alan and Susan Raymond detail the realities of both day-to-day schooling in a high-poverty, majority-minority public schools and the unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), enacted in 2001 with 100% proficiency requirements mandated for 2014.

Toward the end of the film, a voice-over explains that the accountability guidelines in place during the filming excluded exit exam data from graduation requirements for students, but those test scores were included in NCLB accountability decisions about the school and its administration and faculty. Panning across the test room and the voice-over reveal many students with their heads down during those tests.

While standardized testing has been a key component of education in the U.S. for a century, the accountability movement and the impact of high-stakes testing entered mainstream education in the early 1980s. One of the first uses of high-stakes testing then was the introduction of the exit exam, designed to prevent students from being passed along through the system and thus graduating without what proponents called basic skills. South Carolina was one of the first states to commit fully to the accountability movement, establishing standards, state tests, and linking graduation to exit exams.

In 2013, SC now sits poised to abandon the exit exam: “But S.C high school students would no longer have to pass an exit exam to graduate if a state House bill becomes law–welcome news for the thousands of students who struggle year after year to pass both the test’s math and English sections.”

However, this bill does not mean SC will stop implementing those tests: “But because the test is used to determine whether S.C schools and school districts meet state and federal accountability standards, students still would be required to take the exam.”

Sponsors and supporters of this bill should receive credit for recognizing the inherent flaw in honoring one data point (the exit exam) over years of multiple data points (course grades, course credits, GPA). In fact, deciding to drop student accountability for exit exam scores is justified by decades of data on the SAT, revealing that SAT scores remain less credible evidence of student readiness for college than GPA.

However, ending high-stakes consequences for students taking exit exams doesn’t go nearly far enough. SC, and states across the U.S., must end high-stakes testing and begin focusing reform and resources on the conditions of learning and teaching before outcomes can be evaluated in any valid way.

The current plan is flawed and incomplete in the following ways:

  • Just as NCLB has proven to have unintended and detrimental consequences, maintaining teacher and school accountability on an exam that students themselves have no investment in can lead only to the exact scene depicted in Hard Times ay Douglass High—disengaged students and invalid test data. At the end of the documentary, viewers learn that the state takes over the school and replaces the administration, again based on testing many students had essentially felt no obligation to attempt.
  • High-stakes testing has now been exposed as an ineffective reform policy in education. Continuing down the new standards and new tests path is no longer reform, but digging a deeper hole in the status quo.
  • Holding teachers and schools accountable for the outcomes of students is a misuse of accountability since, as scholar and The New York Times columnist Stanley Fish explains, teachers cannot be “responsible for the effects of [their] teaching, whereas, in fact, [they] are responsible only for its appropriate performance.” In other words, ending student, teacher, and school accountability based on high-stakes tests must be replaced by policies that address the conditions of learning and teaching provided for all students by schools and teachers.
  • Ultimately, high-stakes testing is an inefficient drain on state tax dollars; the testing machine and the constant creation, field-testing, and implementation of high-stakes tests fails to produce valid data, but lines the pockets of the testing industry at the expense of public funds.

Should states end using exit exams and other high-stakes tests as gatekeepers for graduation and grade promotion? Yes.

But the current plan to continue implementing exit exams as accountability data for schools and teachers fails to recognize that the problems are the tests themselves and how they are used.

The era of high-stakes testing itself must end, and in its place, let’s instead invest our time and tax dollars on the conditions of learning and teaching.


See the following:

Olesya Baker
Kevin Lang
Working Paper 19182


We evaluate the effects of high school exit exams on high school graduation, incarceration, employment and wages. We construct a state/graduation-cohort dataset using the Current Population Survey, Census and information on exit exams. We find relatively modest effects of high school exit exams except on incarceration. Exams assessing academic skills below the high school level have little effect. However, more challenging standards-based exams reduce graduation and increase incarceration rates. About half the reduction in graduation rates is offset by increased GED receipt. We find no consistent effects of exit exams on employment or the distribution of wages.

Recommended: Educational Documentaries

I teach a May Experience course, The Reel World: The Depiction of Schools on Film. A colleague of mine in the education department and I designed the course before Waiting for “Superman,” but the course is intended as a way to examine how political and public discourse shapes perceptions about public schools as well as policy. The course was revised to include Poverty Studies credit so many of the films explore how education intersects class and race.

This May X, I added the choice of reading either Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School, by Kathleen Nolan, or Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children, by Sarah Carr.

The focus of the discussion, however, remains on the eight documentaries below with some annotations about what aspects of education each film highlights. I do recommend all of these films, although each has some limitations as most documentaries do.

Recommended Documentaries on Education:

Corridor of Shame

This documentary focuses on a court case in South Carolina initiated by high-poverty school districts surrounding primarily the I-95 corridor of the state, paralleling the east coast and stretching from the NE to the SE region. The documentary suffers from melodramatic production values (music, slow-motion panning of sad children’s faces), but the essential claim of the film is important for confronting the social inequity that is reflected in educational inequity, particularly in the South. Issues included in the film are school funding, community-based schools, access to high-quality educational opportunities and facilities, teacher assignments related to student characteristics, and state education accountability mechanisms. Some related resources (SC school report cards, poverty indices, related blog posts) to the documentary can be found HERE.

Heart of Stone

Ron Stone stands at the center of this film about an urban high school in New Jersey. The film is solid and interesting—while also creating a good deal of tension and presenting a surprise ending. Many important issues are raised, notably the controversial stance of Stone as principal toward gangs and gang leaders attending the high school. This is an ideal companion to Police in the Hallways and it confronts several important issues about education and education reform—urban schools, high-poverty/majority-minority schools, zero tolerance policies, deficit views of minorities and impoverished children, gang presence and violence, leadership styles, police in schools.

Flock of Dodos

The controversy, teaching evolution in public schools, that will not die—although it has evolved, ironically—is explored by this film that is engagingly personal and often humorous. The Intelligent Design (ID) movement is the approach of the moment for creating debates about if and how evolution should be taught in schools. While the filmmaker is upfront with his allegiances to science, the documentary is fair, almost to a fault as it allows the scientists to show why their expertise is often lost in their arrogance. The film successfully helps viewers navigate the definitions of science, evolution, ID, and creationism; it also confronts the roles of religion, ideology, and politics (specifically the power of school boards) in the “teach the controversy” assertions found among ID advocates. An interesting connection to this documentary is the news coverage of a creationist test given to students in a SC private school.

Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later

These documentaries often soar because of the people allowed to speak for themselves. This excellent HBO film opens with Minnijean Brown Trickey returning to Little Rock Central High, and then it never fails to deliver throughout. I would rate this a must-see among the selections in this course. The film confronts Brown v. Board, separate and unequal, schools within schools, the return of segregation (especially in the South), and the lingering tensions between the ideal and reality of racial harmony. Related pieces on the rise of the segregated South and education reform in the New Jim Crow Era are recommended. Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is also an excellent connection.

Hard Times at Douglass High

When Waiting for “Superman” was released and disproportionately praised in the media, I wrote a piece on this documentary to suggest it is far superior and to ask viewers what these administration and teachers at Douglass High were supposed to do. The focus of this film is No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in the context of a high-poverty, majority minority urban high school. Some of the most significant moments of the documentary are disturbing scenes of violence in the hallways and one female student recounting a fight with an adult male relative. Teachers struggling with the students, including one TFA recruit, are included, and this is also a strength of the film. The film addresses accountability, administrator/faculty relationships, the roles of teachers (especially young teachers), the influence and struggles of parents, the voices of students, the significance of extracurricular activities, and the limitations of school-only reform and accountability under the weight of poverty and racial inequity.


Who controls the money, controls everything—or at least who controls the money wants to control everything. This documentary examines the clash between a family funding scholarships and the science curriculum in a logging community. This is a powerful pairing with Flock of Dodos since both documentaries dramatize the debate over who should determine the curriculum in public schools serving a free society. Clearcut and Flock of Dodos also highlight the culture war that simmers beneath almost all educational controversies. The issues raised in this documentary can be linked to the influence of entrepreneurs in the current reform movement, such as Bill Gates, and the role of school boards is also a central issue, again as in Flock of Dodos.

Prom Night in Mississippi

Morgan Freeman challenges his childhood hometown to integrate the prom, and he’ll foot the bill; this is the focus of an engaging and powerful documentary on the persistence of segregated proms in the twenty-first century. The voices of students, parents, and administrators drive this film, and the intersection of racism and public education takes center stage through those voices. A potential pairing (non-education related) is the documentary The Loving Story about the 1967 Supreme Court case addressing interracial marriage. The 2013 prom integration in Georgia also is a suitable companion to this film.

Grain of Sand

Neoliberalism driving education reform in Mexico is confronted in this documentary, which provides a strong conclusion to the May experience addressing education. Corporations (Walmart, Coca-Cola, Ford), corrupt unions, and President Fox provide a matrix of influential forces shaping and even dismantling public education in Mexico, paralleling the same neoliberal agenda highlighted under George W. Bush and increased under Obama. A combative and disturbing documentary, Grain of Sand forces viewers to consider the value of the Commons and the dangers of privatization. Like Hard Times at Douglass High, this film suggests that accountability reform based on high-stakes testing poses much greater harm than good for schools and students.


A companion video worth pairing with any of the above films is Tupac Shakur at 17 discussing education.

I Love My Students

Recently, I was at the window of my allergist, paying for my allergy shots. The receptionist asked me something about enjoying my break, but I noted I was currently teaching a May course. Her response was something like “Sorry.”

I said that I enjoyed my May class and ended with “I love my students.” The receptionist stopped typing my information into the computer and looked up at me, her brow furrowed.

“Are you being serious?” she asked.

“Yes,” I explained, “I love my students, I love teaching.”

She explained to me that another professor came to the same office and only said that sarcastically so she assumed I was also.

This moment came back to me as I watched CNN’s coverage of the tornado destroying a school in Moore, OK. Anderson Cooper, echoing comments made by the media during the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, interviewed a teacher who had gathered all of her students under their desks during the storm—and no children from her class were injured—and stated that teachers do amazing things every day, heroic things every day, but this women had gone above her duty.

I have now grown tired of this token and blatantly superficial (and insincere) praise of teachers.

Token praise cannot, or at least should not, mask the disdain expressed about not only teachers but also workers in general in the U.S. The reposted blog below, then, remains a valid concern.

Teachers and the Death of the American Worker *

The first decade of the 21st century has been an ominous harbinger for the American worker.

Children and adults in poverty, the working poor, and the working class are increasing; the middle-class is eroding; and the pooling of capital among the 1% is expanding, forming the anchor stalling the progress of the USS Democracy.

In The State of Working America (12th ed), Mishel, Bivens, Gould, and Shierholz identify the disturbing trends that signal the approaching death of the American worker:

America’s vast middle class has suffered a ‘lost decade’ and faces the threat of another (p. 5)….

Income and wage inequality have risen sharply over the last 30 years (p. 6)….

Rising inequality is the major cause of wage stagnation for workers and of the failure of low- and middle-income families to appropriately benefit from growth (p. 6)….

Economic policies caused increased inequality of wages and incomes (p. 7)….

Claims that growing inequality has not hurt middle-income families are flawed (p. 8)….

Growing income inequality has not been offset by increased mobility (p. 9)….

Inequalities persist by race and gender. (p. 9)

Currently, the American worker—like those trapped in poverty and the working poor—have no political party because, ironically, the democratic process in the U.S. has been bought by Corporate America and democracy has been left in that wake.

Public school teachers also have no political party, and since the Chicago teachers’ strike, teachers now more than ever represent the political and public failure to appreciate and recognize the importance of the American worker.

Teachers as Workers

Early and mid-twentieth century America may have been a turning point for unionization in a country that lives more by ideology than evidence, but even that assessment may be tinted by the rose-colored glasses of hindsight.

The truth is likely that Americans’ embracing of rugged individualism has always been an impenetrable wall between the American character and the community and solidarity at the core of unions.

Nonetheless, the American public school teacher has over the past decade—during the demonstrable decline of the working and middle class as well as the rise of poverty in the U.S.—gradually become the target of the popular corporate agenda to end tenure and break unions, despite the essential democratic nature of both.

Politicians, corporate advocates, and the media have fed a willing public a steady diet of false but robust narratives that characterize teachers as the sole force behind misleading claims of failed public schools. Any evidence- and experience-based rebuttal to the “bad” teacher claim or the corrupt union mantra has been met with a “no excuses” ideology that chants “poverty is not destiny.”

This corporate agenda has no basis in fact, but the abundant commentaries and scholarship refuting this drum beat have failed to pierce the American public’s self-defeating faith in America the meritocracy.

The political and corporate elite know this, and they have little motivation to set aside their lies since they work, and since they benefit in the end.

And during the teachers’ strike in Chicago, the media and political leaders mischaracterized unions and teachers in Chicago and across the U.S.—more laziness and greediness heaped on teachers, and more evidence that the Democratic party is indistinguishable from the Republican party in terms of education and labor policy.

What is most disturbing ultimately about the demonizing of teachers and in effect all American workers is that most Americans are and will always be those exact workers who are being stripped of their rights, dignity, and access to the American Dream that the political and corporate elite along with the public claim to be protecting.

The Chicago teachers’ strike was yet another referendum on the failing education reform agenda that is destined to strip teachers of their professionalism and to further stratify the education system of the U.S. so that affluent children (mostly white) gain even more advantage in their schooling than they have in their lives over children living in working class, working poor, and impoverished homes (disproportionately people of color).

It was a political lie to claim that the Chicago teachers’ strike was the fault of lazy and greedy teachers supported by their corrupt union. It was a political lie to ignore the central demand of those teachers—a stand against test-based teacher accountability.

But neither the political elite nor the corporate elite will eventually lose in this debate because a public embracing of the corporate agenda and rejection of the striking teachers is a self-defeating commitment that will guarantee what appears inevitable now—the death of the American worker.

Teachers are not alone in this, but public school teachers are great American workers. I cannot fathom how we have come to a day when Americans no longer value something that cannot be more American than workers in solidarity.

* Reposted from Daily KosTeachers and the Death of the American Worker (September 11, 2012) 

Limes or Leeches: A Thought Experiment about High-Stakes Accountability

History is a powerful teacher—if we are willing to learn.

Many educators and scholars have triggered the truism “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results,” but that argument seems always to fall on deaf ears among our self-chosen education reformers, the media, and the public.

So let’s venture into history and explore a thought experiment: Would you prefer limes or leeches?

Study the history of identifying and treating scurvy, including how British sailors became known as “limeys.”

Now study the history of blood letting, and the use of leeches.

Solutions, history shows, must be built on a clear identification of the problems and then a careful analysis of what those solutions must be.

Limes and citrus fruits proved credible solutions for preventing scurvy—while “[i]n the overwhelming majority of cases, the historical use of bloodletting was harmful to patients.”

High-stakes accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing is the type of insanity found in bloodletting because the overwhelming majority of educational problems have nothing to do with accountability, standards, or testing—not the lack of accountability, standards, or testing, not the quality of accountability, standards, or testing.


In the education of your child, would you prefer limes or leeches? [And now let’s apply that answer to “other people’s children” because “they’re all our children.”]

Let’s stop the bloodletting.