Because of a learning disability, former Westside High School student Latricia Wilson didn't pass the algebra Gateway test in 2002. Failing any portion of the statewide exit exam, which tests students in English, algebra, and biology, costs Wilson and other students like her their high school diploma.
But beginning with the 2009-2010 school year, graduating from Tennessee public high schools won't hinge on the results of any one examination. Last month, the Tennessee Board of Education voted to do away with the Gateway exam, replacing it with a series of 10 final exams factored into class grades.
The decision is part of a larger restructuring of the state's high school curriculum, which will now be geared toward higher-level thinking skills. Instead of asking students to recall information, they may now be asked to analyze something.
"We realized that a low-level test that measures minimum competency, like the Gateway exam, was probably not sufficient," said David Sevier, a research associate for the Tennessee Board of Education.
"The Gateway was designed to be a minimum bar of competency. It just shows that you know enough Algebra I or English to get by. It doesn't show that you know enough to be successful in college."
The new tests will be given as final exams in 10 subjects and will be more challenging than the Gateway. Since the exams are factored into class grades, Sevier said they will also help students like Wilson, who may do well on classwork but not on standardized tests. Each of the tests counts as 25 percent of the total class grade.
"If you had an 85 average grade [in a class], which is a bottom B, and you got a 50 on the test, you would still have something like a 70 for that class," said Sevier. "And you wouldn't have to retake the test."
When students fail the current Gateway exam, they must retake the test until they pass or they do not receive a high school diploma.
"With this new test, you'd have to be close to failing to actually fail that course for the year," said Wilson, who filed a lawsuit against the state regarding the Gateway but dropped it after the change. "You have a fighting chance now."
Almost half of all states require high school students to pass an exit exam to graduate. Bob Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing said exit exams gained popularity in the early 1990s, but several states are now reconsidering their use. The Gateway was instituted in Tennessee in 1992.
"Eliminating an exit exam is a big step forward," said Schaeffer. "Exit exams should not be used as the sole determinant to make a high-stakes educational decision, like using it as a hurdle for graduation."
Memphis City Schools board member Jeff Warren says the new, more challenging final exams will allow MCS to compare achievement on a national level.
"The Gateway exam is not as hard on a national level. The new tests will be more challenging, so we'll be able to compare ourselves against a national standard," said Warren. "But it won't be a do-or-die test for kids who put in the hard work and deserve a diploma for what they've done."