hardawayA freshman member of the Tennessee House of Representatives from the Memphis area, Mr. George Hardaway, is sponsoring a bill this year which would require both homeschoolers and private school students to take the same “Gateway” end-of-course exams that the state requires public school students to take.

“Why?” is the question that immediately springs to mind.

Bear with me, for the reasoning is somewhat convoluted. The background is bizarre and parochial but it perfectly illustrates Tip O’Neill’s observation that “all politics is local.”

Background: The Memphis delegation has wielded disproportionate influence in the Tenneesee Legislature for over a century. This was partly due to demographics (until quite recently, Memphis was the largest city in the state), partly due to party discipline (Memphis is overwhelmingly Democrat and the Democrats control the state legislature), and partly due to the legacy of Boss Crump. Don’t get me started on Boss Crump. But if you’re going to play politics in Tennessee, you’d be well served to do some research on him.

Where were we… Oh yes, Gateway tests. What are the Gateway tests?

In the High School End of Course Tests Policy, renamed the High School Examinations Policy in August, 2002, the State Board stipulated that beginning with students entering the 9th grade in 2001-2002, students must successfully pass examinations in three subject areas – Mathematics, Science, and Language Arts – in order to earn a high school diploma. These examinations, called Gateway Tests, were intended to raise the academic bar for all high school students and add accountability for students’ academic performance.

– From the Tennessee Department of Education website.

Now, here’s the problem: A disproportionate number of Memphis public school students have been failing the three Gateway Tests required for a high school diploma. Momma and Daddy (and student) aren’t happy when there’s no high school diploma.

Here’s where the politics comes in. Homeschoolers and private school students don’t have to take the Gateway Tests to earn a high school diploma. The cry of “IT’S NOT FAIR!” goes up. Never mind that homeschoolers and private school students have been taking the SAT and ACT tests as a part of their college applications (and doing quite well, thank you very much).

One solution of course would be to try to figure out what the Memphis public schools need to do in order to improve their pass rate on the Gateways. But that would be hard. Simpler solution: Torpedo the Gateway Test requirement! And in order to bring attention and pressure to bear to solve this crisis, require everybody to take them!

Actually, the whole issue is probably moot at this point. Two weeks ago, the Tennessee Board of Education eliminated the requirement that students must pass the Gateway Tests in order to get a high school diploma. They replaced the three Gateway Tests with TEN Gateway Tests (I can’t find a list of the subjects). But passing these tests is no longer required for high school graduation. Instead, the scores on these ten tests will (by mandate of the Tennessee Board of Education) count as 25% of the student’s final grade in each of the ten subjects. You can now fail the test, but unless the test score drags your course average below passing, you don’t have to take the test again. Pretty good summary in this article from the Memphis Flyer on Feb 14, 2008.

So why is Representative Hardaway picking a fight with homeschoolers? Apparently, its a deliberate strategy on his part to get the legislature to focus on changing the Gateway Test rules so more of his constituents can graduate from high school.

A modest suggestion: Somebody ought to try devoting some effort to changing things so students actually learn more.

Oh, and leave the homeschoolers out of it. Of all the groups of students in the state, the homeschoolers are the ones doing the best academically. There are the occasional failures, and stories of kids who fall through the cracks. But I can guarantee you that the success rate of homeschoolers as a group far exceeds the public schools. And the failure rate is far lower.

Just a thought…

– Rob Shearer

PS: For an excellent account of how the first committee hearing on Rep. Hardaway’s bill went, see this account by Kay Brooks: Hardaway Punts.