Trenton High School was not an easy place for John Lassiter. The 17-year-old says he felt lost and unsupported.
"When I had a question, my math teacher told me to put my head down on my desk," he recalls.
The teen dropped out during his sophomore year and registered instead at the Daylight/Twilight High School, a nontraditional program in Trenton, aimed at helping dropouts get back into the system.
Today John's story appears to be moving toward a happy ending. Now a senior, he plans to graduate and hopes to attend college in the fall.
"I like this school," he says. "The teachers here will help you."
But passing his remaining classes will not be enough to get a diploma. To graduate, John, like all public school students in the state, must pass a test.
Currently 19 states require diploma-seeking seniors to take a so-called exit exam. Five more states will have exams in place by 2008, meaning that nearly 70 percent of all public school students will take such exams as a graduation requirement. These tests are meant to demonstrate that every graduate displays adequate skills in math, reading, and writing.
Their advocates say they add value to a diploma by ensuring that it means something.
But their detractors worry that the new focus on more rigorous testing will ultimately hurt students like John - students who may need a second chance if they are to be prevented from completely dropping out of the system.
New Jersey has had a state test, the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA), in place since 1983. But for students who fail the HSPA, there has always been a safety net. The special review assessment (SRA) gives them the opportunity to retake the parts of the HSPA they did not pass.
In the case of a student like John - who failed the HSPA by a few points last spring - the SRA offers a chance to keep himself on track toward higher education. Otherwise, his options would be few. The HSPA is offered only annually, and cannot be taken again after a student finishes all credits.
But the SRA may be on the way out. William Librera, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education, recently submitted a recommendation to the school board to eliminate the SRA.
The situation in New Jersey highlights one of the problems posed by exit exams: What to do with those who fail them?
Some states offer a "certificate of completion" in lieu of a diploma; others have lowered passing scores; and still others offer alternative exams. But in the case of New Jersey, Commissioner Librera says the SRA is undermining educational standards.
Too many students are now slipping past the more rigorous state test by taking the SRA, says Librera. Most of them, he insists, are not special-education students for whom the test was intended. Many are instead students seeking to sidestep the more comprehensive state test.
Such tests are an integral part of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act, which requires that all states give exams by 2006. Though states are not required to make these tests "high-stakes exams" (exams required for graduation), most are choosing to do so.
To encourage improvement under the system, states reward schools that boost test scores with bonuses for administrators and money for equipment and books.
But for the system to work, argue some educators, it's important to close loopholes that might allow some students to attain diplomas without the same rigorous exams their peers are taking. That's why some New Jersey officials - as well as officials in some other states with alternative tests - want to do away with exams like the SRA.
"It's important to see a high school diploma as evidence that students have crossed a certain barrier," says Kathleen Porter, associate director for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, an education research and policy institute in Washington. "We should do what we can to help students reach that level, but we shouldn't just award a diploma to them to make them feel better."
States hope the tests will make all diplomas meaningful in the eyes of colleges and employers. They insist that to grant diplomas based on different standards is inconsistent at best - and perhaps illegal at worst.
"We're graduating kids that may have done the seat time, but might not have cracked a book or raised their head up off the desk," says Kathy Christie, vice president for the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "Lots of people are worried about failure rates ... but you have to make sure kids have access to the same curriculum. If they don't, that's a legal problem."
Some national data seem to affirm that a rigorous reliance on testing is improving the US education system.
A study released in August by the Center on Educational Policy (CEP) found that schools with exit exams showed significant improvements.
"There is more of a sense of urgency because there are consequences attached," says Keith Gayler, associate director of CEP. "Districts that were farther behind are doing things to align their curriculum with state standards."
Despite these positive outcomes, however, the CEP study also found that minorities, English-language learners, and low-income students scored lower on the tests and linked the exams to higher dropout rates.
And that's exactly why students like John Lassiter need alternative schools and tests to help keep them in the system, argue many of those who work with these at-risk students.
William Tracy, principal of Daylight-Twilight, says that nontraditional students are often the casualties of high-stakes testing. Last year, nearly 80 percent of Daylight/Twilight students took the SRA. The school boasts an almost 100 percent graduation rate and a growing number of college acceptances for students who otherwise might have not finished high school.
Mr. Tracy says a state test is useful, but does not agree that certain scores should be required for graduation. "Put the scores on the transcripts and let the next level of people, the employers, the colleges, decide."
Ultimately, argue some who oppose high-stakes testing, there is no absolutely objective means of assessing all students. Trying to do so, they say, only encourages manipulation of the system.
Linda McNeil, a professor of Education at Rice University in Houston, has studied the city's public school system since 1984 and says schools are finding ways to inflate scores. "The first solution is to dump the curriculum and replace it with practice tests," she says. "The second is to dump kids. She says that some schools may also respond by lowering the pass grade.
Ms. McNeil points to a skyrocketing dropout rate in Houston as evidence of the dangers of exit exams. In troubled districts, McNeil says, teachers are encouraged to hold back students who are likely to fail the state exam.
"Students who are passing classes are often forced to repeat the ninth grade and take courses specially tailored to exam questions," says McNeil.
"Many of the students who are held back become discouraged and drop out."
At present, more than half of Houston's high school students do not make it to their senior year, McNeil says. She points to one school whose pass rate for the Texas exit exams soared from 38 percent to 83 percent. "Out of the roughly 750 kids who should have been in the class-year at that school, only 296 took the test. The rest were held back."
McNeil says schools are under enormous pressure to raise test results and are not given funding unless scores improve. Texas offers $10,000 to principals whose schools scores rise significantly.
McNeil warns that using a single indicator to measure education is a dangerous practice.
"It's an Enron system. One indicator is real easy to manipulate. Enron was carrying its losses on another set of books. Our school districts are carrying the losses on a different ledger, and it's the dropouts."
Other states turning to exit exams are also now questioning official alternatives like New Jersey's SRA exam.
Currently, most states lean toward lowering passing scores or giving administrators license to award diplomas to students who may have failed more rigorous exams.
But officials at Daylight/Twilight say tests like the SRA are an important alternative. "The kids work really hard on the SRA," says Robert Wolper, who administers state tests at Daylight/Twilight. "I think it is as rigorous as the HSPA. The kids put a lot of time into studying for it."
John Lassiter is grateful the SRA exists because if it did not, he might not receive his diploma at all and would not be eligible for most colleges.
But at the same time, he's studying hard for the SRA and says he thinks it is right that New Jersey require some sort of an exit exam.
He says the exam will make his diploma more meaningful. It's about self-respect, he says. "I'll know I've learned something ... and I did something right, finally."