As students in the United States practice social distancing to curtail the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, high school seniors are missing out on one of the rites of becoming an adult. Most will not get to march with their classmates and receive their high school diploma in the customary graduation ceremony. For many students, the act of graduating is accompanied by the satisfaction of overcoming substantial challenges to master the academic content necessary to earn a diploma and demonstrate their readiness for what comes next. But what if some 2020 seniors are not ready?

Many states require that students demonstrate their academic readiness by passing assessments as part of their graduation requirements. This can be a mix of content assessments like English Language Arts and end-of-course (EOC) assessments in Algebra or Biology. Most states that require students to pass assessments to graduate administer them for the first time in the spring of their sophomore year. In the case of EOC assessments, students take the assessment at the conclusion of the course, which may be in their freshman, sophomore or junior year. Administering these assessments prior to 12th grade gives students multiple opportunities to demonstrate proficiency.

For the students who had senior-year assessments or who had assessment retakes scheduled this year but were canceled because of the coronavirus, it is important to consider carefully how best to address their graduation. It would be unfair to deny them high school diplomas for circumstances out of their control. On the other hand, it may be unfair to grant diplomas if the students do not demonstrate the benchmark levels of proficiency.

In the early years of states designing assessments for graduation, HumRRO conducted a series of research studies on the implementation of the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). One of the most important findings indicated that students’ preparation in early high school varied greatly depending on which high school they attended and where they lived. The study helped convince California state officials to delay implementation of the CAHSEE by two years to allow schools time to address the disparity before holding students accountable. Currently, states face a similar fairness issue based on districts’ reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic, namely varied accessibility to learning opportunities that would otherwise have been provided through traditional instruction.

Learning Variables

State education agencies have provided guidance for districts and schools to address the loss of traditional instruction time due to school closings. Some districts and schools have implemented highly interactive distance learning options by conducting online classes and using online assessments for their students. Others are less interactive, relying on either e-mail assignments or worksheet packets. The effectiveness of these methods compared to traditional classroom instruction and assessment is unknown. It is therefore impossible to gauge whether these efforts are successful in equipping seniors to pass the requisite assessments needed for graduation.

Even if a school district’s non-traditional instruction (NTI) is highly effective, the application of that instruction is varied within the district’s student population and may be directly correlated with socioeconomic status. Infrastructure issues may limit some students’ access to online content due to an unreliable internet connection or a lack of computer. In addition, the capacity of parents to support effective instruction during a health crisis, which is feeding an economic crisis, is especially difficult among poorer families.

States are faced with challenging decisions about how to treat high school seniors who have not yet passed the required assessments for graduation, because many students also may be facing new challenges that extend well beyond learning academic content.

To Pass or Not To Pass?

States have two options on handling this group of seniors: Deny them their diplomas or graduate them without the required assessments. Both options come with drawbacks. First, denying their diplomas ignores any learning that the students may have acquired between their most recent assessment and the cessation of traditional instruction. Second, if the seniors received effective NTI, then they may have passed the assessments. Denying them the opportunity to demonstrate the requisite knowledge could be considered unfair and, perhaps, even discriminatory. Finally, not graduating these seniors will depress graduation rates and skew any trend data the state is tracking.

The other option—graduating all these seniors—may not be much better. Due to the sudden shift to distance learning that left many districts, teachers and students unprepared, it is likely there will be a demonstrated decline in learning from that point forward. If so, even if the assessments were administered as scheduled, a higher-than-normal proportion of seniors would not have received a passing score. Graduating these seniors anyway makes it certain that some of them will graduate with weaker knowledge, skills and abilities than prior graduating classes. This would put under-prepared students into the workforce or into higher education programs lacking skills and knowledge to be successful.

A similar situation occurred in the early 1980s when the military’s aptitude test, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), had a norming issue that led to numerous unqualified military candidates being enlisted.

A decade later, HumRRO’s research revealed that these recruits struggled to succeed in training and in military jobs. Success indicators, such as income and advancement, showed that they had not kept up with similarly qualified civilians. It has been theorized that this lasting effect was due, in part, to their placement in a post-high school environment for which they were unqualified and unsuccessful.

The parallels are clear: 2020 seniors who graduate without attaining the benchmarks for graduation are likely to struggle in college and/or the workforce, and those struggles may be difficult to overcome. Another reason not to pass all 2020 seniors is that the state may be criticized for holding prior or future graduating classes to a different standard.

Alternate Routes

If those two paths are not palatable, some states may consider a third option to administer the assessments in an online setting.

  Online Test Delivery

Administering the assessment online would allow students to demonstrate requisite knowledge as previous graduates have but from their homes. Similar issues relating to access to online learning remain but could be overcome by providing this smaller group of students the necessary equipment at home. Another challenge is preventing cheating, such as sharing answers, having someone else take or help with the test, or using the internet or calculators during the assessment. States could administer the test through a protected, proctored browser to ensure the integrity of testing. Considering the number of states whose assessments are already online, this is a viable option.

  Supporting Documents

Many states with required assessments for graduation allow students who have issues passing a traditional assessment, but are otherwise ready to graduate, to demonstrate their learning in alternate ways. Students may be required to submit a portfolio of work or submit a performance that shows they have the requisite knowledge, skills and abilities to graduate. They may collect reports from their teachers to show evidence of their readiness to graduate. Students with severe disabilities (SWSD) use these methods when traditional assessments are inappropriate. States and districts may have processes already in place for SWSD, and those options may offer broader opportunity for all students.

  Equivalency Exam

Additionally, states might want to consider allowing this group of seniors to take the GED or other high school equivalency assessment after the pandemic restrictions are lifted. States could potentially arrange to allow seniors who did not have the opportunity to take the assessments in spring 2020 to do so in the summer and/or fall, even if they are no longer registered students. While this option would delay graduation for some high school seniors, it would allow them to demonstrate their readiness for graduation via the same method as their peers from prior graduating classes.

Learning Opportunity

All options available to states that use high school assessments as a graduation requirement have limitations and important factors to consider. It is vital that states consider their options carefully before implementing a solution. Also, states should track and archive as much data as possible during the Covid-19 pandemic. The potential for future research is great, as is the potential for improving education systems. The challenges facing states during this time are daunting, but the potential to learn from the experience is considerable.

This blog is the second in a three-part education series. Read this first one, Factors to Consider if States Move Spring Assessments to the Fall. The third one, to be posted tomorrow, will discuss the promotion of younger students.

About the Author:

Arthur Thacker, Ph.D.

Principal Scientist