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Devin Hansen is proud he passed his high school exit exams, but he is not happy about being compelled to do it.

His mixed feelings resonate with an ongoing national debate over the tests. How do you raise the bar for student achievement and school accountability while also allowing for individual abilities?

Devin is an Olympus High School senior whose learning disabilities have made school a struggle. He failed the math section of the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test three times before passing it in October. It also took him multiple tries to pass the UBSCT's reading and writing sections.

"Having something I was shooting for helped me gain better knowledge," Devin said. But the stress of the testing process was almost unbearable, he added.

Devin's is the first Utah graduating class to be required to take the UBSCT, a distinction he would rather not have.

"Teenagers are doing all we can to graduate," Devin said. "Having this extra pressure on us is really hard, and I don't agree with it."

Devin Hansen's good fortune in passing the test is not shared by the majority of students with disabilities. After October's UBSCT administration - the fourth time the test was offered to the class of 2006 - 64 percent of students with disabilities still had not passed. The last chance at the test is coming up in early February.

Only 1 percent of students - those with severest disabilities - are exempted from the UBSCT; they take the Utah Alternate Assessment. Such students, who may be working on basic skills such as tying shoes, receive high school completion certificates instead of diplomas. Federal law requires that other students with disabilities have access to the full high school curriculum, and that they participate in assessments, said Karl Wilson, state director of special education.

"The state of Utah has high expectations for all students, including students with disabilities," Wilson said.

Like Devin Hansen, most students in special education programs are able to complete high school course work with certain accommodations, such as larger print, Braille materials or extra time to complete work.

These students are held accountable for their UBSCT results. They are allowed their prescribed learning accommodations while taking the test, but the test content is not modified for them.

Learning disabilities are only one of several factors associated with low pass rates for USBCT.

Economic disadvantage has a statistical correlation to failing the test; so does lacking English proficiency, or being a member of some ethnic subgroups.

Exit exams are intended to create motivation and accountability in students and teachers, and their use is becoming increasingly common throughout the United States.

But critics say the high-stakes tests place additional burdens on already-disadvantaged students by barring them from post-high school education and well-paying jobs.

That is in part why the Utah Board of Education earlier this month lowered the stakes for passing the UBSCT.

The board decided to give real diplomas - not just certificates of completion - to students who fail.

All students who try the tests at least three times and pass required course work will receive diplomas this spring, but the diplomas must state whether students passed the UBSCT. Students who don't bother to take the tests could still be in line for certificates of completion.

Starting with the class of 2007, those who pass course work but fail the UBSCT will get diplomas only if they took advantage of remediation opportunities. The Utah Office of Education is asking the Legislature for money to support the remedial classes, which have no funding.

Legal advice to the State School Board suggested offering only certificates of completion to students who fail the UBSCT would preclude college entrance and eligibility for college loans and grants from the federal government.

Allowing diplomas - even if they state the tests were not passed - is meant to mitigate that problem, said Patti Harrington, Utah state schools superintendant.

Although employers rarely ask to see diplomas, Harrington encourages them to start asking for high school transcripts, which must state UBSCT scores and high school grades, to get a complete picture of a job applicant's high school performance.

"They would receive a great deal more information if they did," she said.

Jan Hansen, Devin's mother, was pleased to learn that students who fail the UBSCT won't go through life without high school diplomas, but she remains a firm believer in raising standards. Maybe it's because she is a former schoolteacher.

"I'm happy there's a solution for those kids that really can't do it, but I do think they should emphasize having all the kids try to pass it," Hansen said. "It's a good barometer of the commitment of the students. Everything is not fair in life, and not everyone has the same skills, but it never hurts to try to get everyone to work to his capacity."

Still, Jan Hansen continues to feel concern for students whose learning disabilities may make it extraordinarily difficult for them to pass the tests - and those who lack the family support Devin had.

Jan and her husband, Gordon, started intensive study with Devin two years ago, with the goal of passing the UBSCT in mind.

Nightly sessions of reading aloud helped Devin pass the English section on his third try. But math - the section failed most often by Utah students - just didn't compute for Devin.

He took remediation courses at Olympus High during the school year, attended a summer workshop and studied daily with his dad. And, he kept failing, time after time - five times in all, counting practice tests.

Devin didn't stop trying, and neither did his parents. Nor did his resource teacher at Olympus High, Elizabeth Watson.

"She took her consultation period and worked with Devin one on one every day for six weeks," Jan Hansen said.

On the final school day before the December break, Jan Hansen got a phone call from Watson: "I'd like to give you your Christmas present. He passed."

Exit exams around the nation

* Utah is one of 26 states requiring exit exams.

* In recent years, several states have moved away from minimum competency tests such as the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test toward more challenging standards-based and end-of-course exams.

* The UBSCT tests competency in math, reading and writing. Exit exams in some states also test science, history and social studies.

* The UBSCT questions match up with course material taught in grades six through 10, giving Utah the lowest average grade of alignment among states requiring the exit exams.

Source: Center on Education Policy