- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 3, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Current seniors in Mississippi public schools could become the first in nearly 30 years to graduate without passing an exit exam.

State Superintendent Carey Wright announced Tuesday before the Senate Education Committee that, while the department would continue giving subject-area exams in algebra, biology, English and U.S. history, it now would allow students to graduate without passing them.

Instead, the tests would count for 20 percent to 30 percent of the student’s course grade.

Wright said the state Board of Education is likely to send a proposal out for public comment at its March meeting, with final adoption likely at its May meeting. She said if that happened, this year’s seniors who haven’t passed one or more tests could be cleared to graduate with their classmates.

The superintendent made her announcement after the House passed a bill 119-0 that would abolish the test-passing requirement. That measure died Tuesday in the Senate committee at a legislative deadline, as Wright made her announcement.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said he believed it was better for the board to make the decision than for lawmakers to mandate it. A number of bills that intrude on traditional board powers of standard-setting and test selection were introduced in the Legislature this year.

Wright said she made the decision to seek the change after a survey of 30 states. She denied making the move because of political pressure.

“The test is still the test,” Wright said. “We’re still administering the test.”

Mississippi began administering an exit exam in 1986, when it adopted what was called the Functional Literacy Exam. It later switched to subject-area tests administered after students took particular courses around 2000.

Jennifer Dounay Zinth, who directs high school policy at the Education Commission of the States, said exit exams began in Southern states and spread to more than half the states. But Zinth said some other states are rolling exams into course grades or ending them altogether.

Many local Mississippi superintendents have pushed to end the tests.

“We think that one test should not be the determining factor for a diploma,” said Sam Bounds, executive director of the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents.

Many superintendents said a new requirement that all juniors take the ACT college exam is a better option to determine graduation readiness. All 35,000 public high school juniors statewide took the ACT Tuesday, under a $1.3 million program, but they don’t have to make a minimum score to graduate.

In 2012, 90 percent of Mississippi’s 28,400 seniors passed all four tests on their first try. By the state’s count, 2,807 seniors lacked a passing score on one or more tests. Not all of those actually failed. Some are transfers who aren’t required to pass tests for classes they completed elsewhere. Others are special-education students who aren’t required to pass the tests.

Students who fail a test have had optional routes to graduation since 2013, including reaching certain scores on the ACT; Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams; the test the U.S. military gives to recruits; and options aimed at students taking career or technical courses.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy

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