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Many fall one step shy of their diploma
Graduation tests keep thousands from completing high school
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Carley Kilcrease walked across the stage at Flowery Branch High School’s 2014 graduation. But instead of a diploma, she was handed a certificate to say she had completed high school yet didn’t earn that final piece.

“Carley watched all of her friends march off and go to college while she’s sitting there all summer long and couldn’t do anything,” said her mother, Benita Kilcrease. “She couldn’t even get a job in a lot of cases unless she had her diploma. They wanted to know if she finished school. Carley said, ‘Yeah, I finished but I didn’t get my diploma.’

“That was hard on her. The whole thing has been devastating for her.”

According to both Carley Kilcrease and her mother, she passed all of her classes and other requirements needed for a diploma with one exception: the math portion of the Georgia High School Graduation Tests.

“I would venture to say that probably the board of education, if they were sat down at some point in time to take that specific test themselves, I would venture to say that a good portion of them would not pass the test as well,” Benita Kilcrease said.

Georgia High School Graduation Tests are required for students who entered high school prior to July 2011. Students must pass the tests in four content areas, plus the Georgia High School Writing Test in order to graduate.

Kilcrease was one of thousands of current and former students across Georgia finding these tests not to be teenage rites of passage, but barriers to the achievement of a high school diploma, even when all other requirements have been met.

Per the Georgia Department of Education’s website, students who do not pass one or more of the tests can still earn a certificate of completion if they’ve met all other graduation requirements. If they earn that certificate, they can return beyond graduation and continue attempting to take the graduation tests to earn a diploma.

“We want them to pass. That is what we want,” said Kevin Boyd, state Board of Education member for the 9th Congressional District. “We want them to be able to graduate.

“It should mean something to have a high school diploma.”

If they don’t pass, students can apply for either a waiver or a variance from the test. Most ask for waivers, according to Wayne Colston, testing and assessment coordinator for the Hall County School District. A variance could be granted if the student is only a few points away from the passing mark, while a waiver would be for a student who falls several points short.

“Some kids do not test as well as others,” Colston said. “They may have done fairly well in high school, but (not) when it comes to taking tests.”

Applications are submitted by the student’s local school district to the Department of Education. Officials then vet the applications to make sure all components are there. That information is presented to state school board members. The final vote on whether to grant a waiver comes from the 14-member board. It takes a majority vote to pass.

It’s one of the few times the state board deals directly with educational outcomes of individual students.

For his part, Boyd said he likes to see “effort” put into passing the test, which to him means making multiple attempts.

“We want to see effort,” he said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for a child to take an (End of Course Test) once or twice and ask for a waiver ... when they’ve had opportunities to take it four or five times.”

Some of the information provided includes whether the request stems from a disability or hardship; whether the student passed the subject’s End of Course Test and other class exams; the student’s age; how many points they are from passing; the number of attempts; and the student’s average in that particular subject.

“There are some cases where, depending on the certain type of disability, we know that child is just not going to be able to pass,” Boyd said. “This is kind of hard, because we only have one high school diploma. But nobody wants their child to get a ‘special ed’ diploma, and that’s where the difficulty lies.”

Carley Kilcrease applied as having a disability, which according to her mother includes post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorder and auditory processing disorder.

There’s no particular rubric used to determine eligibility for a waiver or a variance. Both Colston and state officials said board of education members generally approve applications from people at risk of losing a job unless they can prove they earned a diploma.

But that doesn’t help those who can’t find a job without that diploma in hand.

“Some that I’ve sent in, I think, ‘Well, they’ve got a pretty good shot at it,’” Colston said. “This past month, September, I had 10 that I sent down for consideration. Four of the 10 were approved. Six were denied.”

That percentage tends to match the numbers of how many applications overall are approved, according to department of education officials. According to documents on the department’s website, out of the 3,454 waiver or variance applications that came in for the 2014 fiscal year, slightly more than 1,800 were denied by the Georgia Department of Education, more than half.

Those are for individual waiver applications; for example, a student can apply for a waiver in both math and science, which would show up as separate case numbers.

Case decisions are available via PDF documents on the department’s website, www.gadoe.org.

Officials say hundreds of applications go before board members monthly.

“So for instance, for September, I think there was a little over 300 (applications),” said Allan Meyer, who works in the policy division of the Education Department. “Getting further away from graduation, it will be usually less. I think it’s fluxed as high as maybe 600 in a month ... they’re usually in the 100 to 300 range.”

As for percentages of applications that are approved, both Meyer and his colleague Howard Hendley estimate fewer than half are accepted, as was the case for fiscal year 2014.

“It’s usually not been terribly high,” Meyer said. “You have to think of it as a judicial issue. It’s based on the merit of the information that’s in the cases, generally. The salient facts are what they are. If the board is inclined based on the facts that are there, they’ll approve the waiver.”

Kilcrease, though, sees it as a form of discrimination against many of the applicants who, like her daughter, were able to meet other graduation requirements. She also sees it as a drain on government resources by sending young adults into the world with no high school diploma.

“These kids are collecting money from the state as far as welfare and child support,” she said. “They’re not able to move forward with their lives because that test held them back from getting a diploma.”

Carley Kilcrease was eventually granted a waiver during the state’s September board meeting. The emotions behind the entire process, however, remain raw for her mother.

“I am sick to death,” Benita Kilcrease said. “For 12 years, I have paid for my daughter’s education that was supposed to be free because I’ve been paying for tutoring.

“Mind you, she passed all of her other subjects but that thing she’s had the hardest time with was math. And nobody could teach her. Nobody.”

Carley Kilcrease is working as a restaurant hostess, and is now in the process of applying to the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus. She wants to study photography and journalism.

Incoming freshmen no longer have to take the graduation tests; they were replaced with the End of Course Tests in 2011, and those are ending this year in favor of the Georgia Milestones exams. Students must also still take the Georgia High School Writing Test.

In the meantime, there remain many Georgia adults who only need to pass one or more of these tests — or be granted a waiver — to attain a diploma.

It’s a decision that weighs heavily on Boyd, who said it’s a struggle to choose between the value of a diploma versus a young adult trying to get ahead in life.

“I don’t want to get in the way of progression,” Boyd said. “For me, if you haven’t had the best high school career and you’re missing one test or something of that nature, but there’s a technical school or junior college or community college that’s willing to take you ... that weighs very heavily on me.”

 “It’s serious. Because to me, every piece of paper represents a child. It’s unfair for me to be nonchalant about that. What if it was my child?”

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