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Students who completed 12 years of school but didn’t graduate because they failed the exit exam between 1990 and 2014 may now be able to get a high school diploma.

The state legislature voted unanimously this year to retroactively end the high school exit exam, allowing public school students who completed all their course work and attendance requirements to apply for a diploma. They have until the end of 2015 to fill out their applications.

Sen. John Matthews, D-Bowman, who supported putting the exit exam in place in 1990, says he also supported ending it.

“The thought was that kids would work harder and score better on tests if they knew they’d have to take the exit exam, but it didn’t turn out that way,” he said.

The exam has apparently brought about more problems than solutions, Matthews said. It kept a lot of students from graduating. Instead of getting a diploma, they got a certificate of attendance.

“For the ones wanting to go to college or into the military, it creates a lot of problems,” he said.

Matthews said he doesn’t think eliminating the exam lowers the quality of diplomas. From his understanding, many of the students who failed the exit exam were completing their class work and passing the tests.

Former Orangeburg Consolidated School District Five Superintendent Melvin Smoak, who worked in the district for 36 years before retiring in 2010, said he was opposed to the exam from the beginning.

“I never did believe in one assessment deciding a person’s future,” he said. “Some people are just poor test takers.

“I’ve know many students who may not have done well on just one test, but have gone on to do very, very well in their careers.”

The decision about a student’s eligibility to graduate should be based on benchmarks throughout high school, he said. That’s the way to see if students have mastered the concepts and skills they need to be successful. It also gives the school the opportunity to reteach and reassess as needed in order to prepare students for life.

In 2013, 26 states including South Carolina required students to pass exit exams. However, Alabama, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada joined South Carolina this year in passing legislation ending exit exams and replacing them with tests better designed to assess students’ readiness for college and careers.

South Carolina’s legislation implements a WorkKeys assessment. WorkKeys measures skills in applied math, applied technology, business writing, listening, locating information, observation, readiness, reading for information, teamwork and writing.

Matthews noted that WorkKeys is an assessment of skill, not a test that will keep students from getting a diploma.

Some local school administrators say they also agree with ending the exit exam.

Brenda Turner, superintendent of Orangeburg Consolidated School District Four, called the exit exam a “gatekeeper” for high school diplomas.

“But it did not correlate with the students’ readiness for college or career,” she said.

“I’d like to see more focus on course content mastery,” she said. She said she also wants to see the state fund the WorkKeys assessment because it provides a more valuable service for students.

OCSD 4 has already received 16 applications for diplomas from people who did not pass the exit exam.

Turner said that any former student who wants to apply for a diploma should submit a written request to Assistant Superintendent Dr. Shirlan Jenkins at the district office in Cope. The district will then confirm that the individual has earned the required 24 units and submit a formal request to the State Department of Education.

Phyllis Schwarting, superintendent of Bamberg School District I, said she sees no real value in the exit exam, also known as High School Assessment Program.

“HSAP was not always what it was cracked up to be anyway,” she said. Sometimes students barely missed passing it, but that kept them from getting a diploma.

“And the diploma could mean better jobs for them,” she said. “There are probably jobs people can do, but can’t be hired for because they don’t have a high school diploma.”

Like Turner, Schwarting thinks WorkKeys has more to offer students than the exit exam.

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It assesses students and identifies interpersonal skills such as how to dress for an interview, how to go to an interview and how get along with people, she said.

It’s not as academically-oriented as HSAP, but it does give scores on academic areas and identifies strengths and weaknesses to help reveal the kinds of jobs students will do well in, Schwarting said.

The Bamberg One board has already approved nine applications for diplomas that will be sent on to the S. C. Department of Education, Schwarting said. Any Bamberg-Ehrhardt student who failed the exit exam and wants to apply for a diploma should call Guidance Counselor Vernon Wallace at 803-245-3030 to set up an appointment.

The HSAP is just a test, and doing away with it does not lower the state’s educational standards, Bamberg School District Two Superintendent Dr. Thelma Sojourner said.

“Some kids miss (passing) it by one point and don’t get their diploma,” she said. And a diploma, or the lack of one, can have such a major effect on their lives. Not having a diploma can prevent them from advancing in their jobs.

Sojourner noted that the district has received seven applications for diplomas. Once the district checks to make sure the applicants qualify, the applications will be presented to the board for approval and then be sent on to State Department of Education for final approval. Applications can be picked up at Denmark-Olar High School.

Orangeburg Consolidated School District Five Trustees recently voted unanimously to approve 15 applications that will be sent on to the S.C. Department of Education for final approval. District spokesman Bill Clark noted that all the students successfully completed course work and attendance requirements.

Former OSCD 5 students who want to submit an application for a high school diploma under the provisions of the new state law should contact Graduation Coordinator Faith Arthur at 803-534-5454. Additional information will be posted online at www.ocsd5.net

Dr. Steve Wilson, superintendent of Calhoun County Public Schools, said the district has already had eight to 10 applications for diplomas.

Anyone who wants to apply for a diploma should come by the district office at 125 Herlong Street in St. Matthews, he said.

Contact the writer: dlinder-altman@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5529.

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Contact the writer: 803-533-5529

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