Some seniors move to exam-free states to graduate
By JENNIFER RADCLIFFE | Houston Chronicle
May 3, 2008
Atascocita High School honors student Ashley Coxen wasn't about to let the state's high-stakes exam or severe test anxiety keep her from earning a diploma this June or from cashing in a promised college scholarship.
With her heart set on becoming a crime scene investigator, the 17-year-old figured a way around the science portion of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, which she's narrowly failed several times. A tearful Coxen flew last week to Denver, where she'll live with relatives until she earns her diploma from Colorado, a state that doesn't require students to pass an exit exam.
"I don't think a test should determine whether you graduate or not," Coxen said.
Texas is among about 20 states with high-stakes graduation exams. While researchers focus their efforts on identifying students who drop out because of these exams, no one collects statistics on the hundreds of other students who quietly exit Texas public schools to receive diplomas elsewhere. With just months or weeks left in their senior years, struggling students enroll in private schools or out-of-state campuses to skirt the TAKS. Others seek general equivalency diplomas or opt to be home-schooled down the final stretch.
As of March, 40,500 Texas high school seniors still needed to pass at least one portion of the four-part TAKS. Some of the students may have already dropped out, returned to their home country or moved out of state for issues unrelated to the TAKS, officials said. The majority, however, won't sport caps and gowns in June unless they passed the exam on their fifth attempt last week.
For some of these families, desperation is setting in.
"About mid-May last year, we got probably half a dozen or a dozen phone calls from public school seniors who were not able to graduate," said Tim Lambert, president of the Texas Home School Coalition."But that's not home schooling. You don't go to school, withdraw the last month and get a diploma."
Though the coalition and the state don't condone it, technically speaking, a parent could do just that. But it's up to each college or university to determine whether the home-school-issued diploma is sufficient to maintain any admission or scholarship the student earned while attending public school, Texas Education Agency spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said.
Otherwise, the state recognizes parents' rights to choose home schooling, private schools or out-of-state transfers, she said.
For the most part, Trevor Thorn, director of undergraduate admissions at Sam Houston State University, said officials usually don't question students who change schools late in their senior year.
"It may be personal," Thorn said. "It's really none of my business."
A few charter and private school campuses in Houston have earned reputations as diploma mills, he said. Students who transfer to those campuses subject themselves to extra scrutiny, he said, declining to name those schools.
More than 16,800 children left public school to be home-schooled in 2005-06 and 8,400 more left for private school, but the TEA couldn't pinpoint how many were high school seniors at the time, officials said.
Nija Higgins, who founded a private school in Dallas called T. Davis Independent School, saw her enrollment skyrocket last year when she started marketing her campus to high school seniors who were unable to pass the TAKS.
"We opened up Pandora's box," said Higgins, a former public school teacher. Though many private schools require students to enroll for a semester or two before they can earn a diploma, students can graduate from T. Davis in a matter of weeks.
About 100 students enrolled at T. Davis in January — the majority of whom are seniors, Higgins said. They all have to earn their class credits and complete a leadership class before they receive a diploma, Higgins said. Tuition starts at about $680, she said.
"I have a few that enrolled the last six weeks when they got their test scores," she said. "It just brings tears to your eyes when you hear all these parents."
Many are smart teens who will lose college scholarships if they don't graduate. Their parents are panicked, Higgins said.
State policymakers "don't realize that maybe they're just not good test takers. A lot of them just have anxieties," she said.
TEA officials aren't sure whether switching to end-of-course exams, which will be phased in for Texas high schoolers in 2011-12, could mean fewer students will face these types of tough decisions so late in their senior years.
Under that system, students will have to earn a combined score of 70 percent on their freshman, sophomore and junior level in each of the four main content areas. Each end-of-course exam also will count as 15 percent of a student's class grade.
Joan Herman, who directs a testing research center at the University of California, Los Angeles, said relying on a single assessment creates unintended consequences.
"That's the nature of blanket policies," Herman said.
If Coxen's parents weren't as aggressive, the teen could have become a dropout statistic, she said.
Coxen transferred from Colorado to Texas late in her sophomore year, which may be part of the reason she was tripped up by Texas' science test. She's also struggled with test anxiety throughout her academic career, said her mother, Shawna Coxen. Despite studying hard and working with a tutor, the teen failed by one question on the April retest.
"She's not a slacker. She didn't blow it off," Shawna Coxen said. "The poor kid's done everything she's supposed to do."