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New SC Law Deletes High School Exit Exam Mandate

COLUMBIA, S.C.—South Carolina is replacing its high school exit exam with tests considered more useful to students’ future success, with scores that could go on work resumes or college admissions applications.

A new law signed by Gov. Nikki Haley deletes South Carolina’s 3-decade-old requirement that high school students pass an exit exam to graduate, starting with the Class of 2015.

“The true measure of our education system is how prepared students are to enter the workforce and forcing them to take a 30-year-old, one-size-fits-all test is not the best way to accomplish that goal,” Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said Monday.

It’s a move long pushed by advocates for children with disabilities, who say the High School Assessment Program can be the lone hindrance for students who can otherwise earn the 24 credits needed for a South Carolina diploma. Business leaders also pushed to toss a test that provides no useful information to students or their future employers.

Next school year, the HSAP won’t exist. Instead, 11th-graders will take two tests.

The law specifies one will be ACT’s WorkKeys, a work-skills assessment system that awards certificates for qualifying scores, from bronze to platinum, which students can take to employers. The other will test for college readiness. That specific test hasn’t been picked yet. It could be either the SAT or ACT college-entrance exam.

Eleven states require all high school juniors to take the ACT, including North Carolina. In a 12th state, North Dakota, juniors can choose to take WorkKeys instead. In Michigan and Illinois, juniors are required to take both, said ACT spokeswoman Katie Wacker.

The switch from HSAP follows recommendations by South Carolina’s independent Education Oversight Committee. The nearly $4 million the state currently spends on HSAP will be redirected to the other tests.

South Carolina teens have taken an exit exam since 1986. Those who don’t pass both the English and math sections in their sophomore year have multiple chances to try again. Last year, 82 percent of first-time test-takers statewide passed both.

“The HSAP doesn’t give students any information to move forward. It’s a bare-minimum criteria to get a diploma,” said EOC director Melanie Barton. “The bar has been raised. The diploma is no longer enough.”

Requiring South Carolina students to take both college- and career-readiness tests gives them options if their plans change. Juniors then have time to do something with the results, whether that’s getting an internship or taking courses to boost their scores, Barton said. However, the state would not fund test re-takes.

State Chamber of Commerce President Otis Rawl said his group pushed for WorkKeys as a practical test that help match students to jobs.

The certifications “give business and industry people a lot better concept of what they’re capable of doing,” he said.

ACT’s work readiness system is not new.

Since 2006, nearly 212,000 WorkKeys certificates have been issued through the state’s unemployment agency: 31 percent of them bronze, 55 percent silver and 13 percent gold, according to ACT.

In 2012, Haley announced partnering with ACT to launch Certified Work Ready Communities, using WorkKeys to coordinate state and local efforts to align the skills of unemployed workers with job openings. The initiative also aims to assess skills on a county-by-county level, then fill education gaps.

All 46 counties and more than 1,300 businesses are participating. So far, two counties—rural Clarendon last August and McCormick last month—have met their goals to earn “work ready” certificates, according to ACT.

The new law complements that effort, said Cheryl Stanton, director of the state Department of Employment and Workforce.

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