This article was originally published by WireTap.

July 3, 2008

My name is Latricia Wilson. I was born in Gary, Indiana but currently reside in Memphis, Tennessee. I am 25 years old and a student at Tennessee Technology Center. Just a few years ago I wasn’t sure if I would be able to achieve any higher education or vocational training because my high school denied me a standard diploma despite the fact that I had completed all of my courses.

I was denied a proper diploma because I had failed to pass the math section of a new end of year test by a few points.

The Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program Achievement Tests (TCAP), now called the Gateway Exam (PDF), are part of the state’s assessment program. The high-stakes exit exam I took is part of a growing trend around the country leaving thousands of students without diplomas.

Prior to graduating high school, my career goals were to be a hairstylist and television makeup artist. After being denied a standard high school diploma in 2002 for failing to pass the TCAP math section, I was denied entry into all beauty schools even though I was on the technical/vocational path in high school and had taken cosmetology classes during my high school career. I was also denied entry into other Memphis technical and community colleges and universities.

I struggled as an adult to make a living wage to support myself. I worked as a waitress for years, took on double shifts and was just barely able to pay my rent. I was getting further away from my career goals and sinking deeper into poverty and debt. Eventually, I was evicted from my apartment. I’ve truly experienced how difficult it is to be an independent adult without a valid high school diploma. But I decided to do something about it, and started a quest to regain my rightful degree.

This is my own experience with Tennessee’s public education system and how I was able to change it.

Diploma Drama

I was one of many students denied a high school diploma for failure to pass the TCAP tests in 2002. I had a mild learning disability in math, which made passing those TCAP sections difficult. I was enrolled in math resource classes from the ninth grade, and instructed at a slightly lower grade level than my classmates. Despite this, I was repeatedly administered the TCAP on a higher grade level than the one at which I was taught. As a result, I was unable to pass the math section by the end of senior year.

I was allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony, but instead of a regular diploma I received a “special education diploma,” awarded to students with physical, emotional or severe learning disabilities not able to meet standard diploma requirements. But, having passed 20 credits in regular classes just like other students, I was qualified. I was mislabeled for no reason other than having failed the TCAP math section.

I was told by more than one high school guidance counselor that I could still further my education to some degree. I later learned that technical, vocational, community colleges and universities in Tennessee wouldn’t accept my special diploma, because these institutions don’t consider it a valid graduation certificate.

I was shamed and silenced, just like thousands of students that fail these state tests every year.

Gateway’s Gaps

23 states, including Florida, Texas and California, have adopted exit exams as a requirement for receiving high school diplomas. The Gateway Exam is Tennessee’s graduation requirement test and consists of English II, Algebra I and Biology I exams.

These assessments might seem like an important way to gauge a school or student’s performance, but in the end they’re linked to an inherently flawed public education system that fails to consider factors that hinder student performance such as lack of access to adequate classroom resources, quality instruction or tutoring services.

Students with learning disabilities are disproportionately affected because Tennessee public schools don’t offer reasonable test accommodations such as portfolio assessments, additional test time, alternative test formats, or the use of adaptive equipment. Failing to provide these accommodations violates federal and state provisions set forth in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (reauthorized in 2002 as No Child Left Behind), the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

School closures also impact student preparedness for exit exams. In Memphis, for every school that closes, another facility must be made available, otherwise students are assigned to the next closest school. This can lead to class sizes of up to 40 students. Overcrowding hinders a teacher’s effectiveness in covering core subjects such as English, science and math. Some teachers aren’t even properly prepared to teach the basics.

In 2005, the Memphis City School Report Card data revealed that over one third of instructors were not “highly qualified” to teach core courses, leaving Memphis students with some 6,653 under-qualified teachers.

The Tennessee Department of Education also refuses to release test information that identifies what answers students missed, or indicate sections on which they may have performed poorly. Releasing this information would help instructors provide assistance for the Gateway Exam and ensure that students could be more successful when retaking the exam. Despite the fact that failure to pass an exit exam may seriously impact a student’s future, proper assistance is not provided.

Making The Grade


How high school exit exams negatively affect students nationally.
    • In 2004, 64 percent of Arizona’s students failed the math exit exam and 41 percent failed the English exam.
  • In 2007, failure to pass all four sections of state tests left 40,200 Texas students without diplomas.
  • 13,000 students did not pass Florida’s FCAT exam in 2003 and were denied diplomas.
  • In 2006, a California appeals court refused diplomas for 20,000 students who failed the state’s CAHSEE exam.
  • In 2003, Massachusetts’ MCAS exam left over 5,000 students without diplomas
  • The Poughkeepsie Journal reported that in 2003 about 3,000 New York seniors failed the state’s math Regents exam.

Denied Opportunities

According to the Tennessee Department of Education Annual Statistical Reports, between 1995 and 2007 a total of 32,233 students statewide were denied standard high school diplomas and given “special education diplomas.” A further 8,654 students were only issued Certificates of Attendance (COA).

The Tennessee Department of Education failed to notify students of the COA’s limitations including ineligibility for student loans, scholarships, entrance to the military or Federal Pell Grant funding for post-secondary education, as well as exclusion from technical, community colleges and universities.

The individual and societal costs of denying a diploma based on a state test score without providing students other alternatives are painfully high. Data from FairTest, the American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau and Education Research Center show that students without diplomas earn much less in the workforce. They are less likely to maintain stable families as a result of unemployment or under-employment, and may turn to criminal activities in order to earn an income. Young people face these challenges every day and the stigma of having failed to complete their education silences them. In my case, it took a lawsuit to regain my voice.

I Had to Do Something!

While contemplating my future and feeling frustrated with the system, I decided to appeal the deficiencies of special diplomas and high-stakes exit examination before the Memphis school board, the state legislature and make my case heard on all the Memphis news stations (video).

I first addressed the Memphis City School Board at several meetings. Then I began contacting several local and state representatives by e-mail and phone to tell them how graduation requirements had affected my life. I came in contact with Rep. Barbara Cooper (D-Tenn.) who at that time was pushing for legislation to change the state graduation policies. I explained my diploma’s limitations and how it was barring me from even entering a beauty school and Rep. Cooper asked me to testify before the House and Higher Education Committee at the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville.

I also explained the issue in a one-on-one meeting in Washington, D.C. with Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.). A local D.C. blog called The Pesky Fly covered the meeting and wrote:

What impressed me about [her] current Congressman is that he didn’t blow her off, and when she began to articulate her issue, he immediately offered to put her in touch with the Chairman of the Education sub-committee, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.). Rep. Cohen gave Ms. Wilson a two-hour meeting on a Friday morning (when many of his colleagues, including some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, were busy blowing town for parts unknown, if not back to their districts). Expect Latricia to become a “shining star” on the Hill when she gives that testimony before Rep. Miller’s subcommittee.

Meanwhile, I approached news reporters while they were covering stories on the streets of Memphis and distributed brief summaries of my personal experience and copies of my diploma. Media outlets were instrumental in forcing the state to acknowledge the issue of how its exit exams affected students like myself.

As a result, a federal class action lawsuit was filed July 26, 2007 against the Tennessee Department of Education on behalf of all former students that were denied high school diplomas for failure to pass the Gateway Exam. I was one of the plaintiffs represented by a young man named Corey Robertson. Walter Bailey Law Firm Attorney Javier Bailey filed my case.

Better Days Ahead

Within the lawsuit, my attorney asked the judge to dismantle the Gateway Exam as a graduation requirement. We also asked that students denied diplomas be re-certified. Unfortunately, the lawsuit was dismissed due my case’s expired statute of limitations. We lost the battle but in the end we won the war because we were successful in being the first to legally challenge the state on this issue. Tennessee’s unfair testing policy had been exposed.

The Tennessee State Board of Education did not want to risk being challenged on graduation testing again and on January 25, 2008, just a few months after my suit was dismissed, the Board moved to eliminate the Gateway Exam as a diploma requirement. In the 2009-2010 school year no student in the state of Tennessee will be required to pass any test to qualify for a high school diploma.

While I failed the TCAP math section in 2002 because of systemic failures in the public school system here in Tennessee, I do not consider myself a failure. In fact, I took the Gateway Exam on May 1, 2007 in hopes of passing to obtain a standard diploma. I’m determined that I will not be deemed unemployable and incapable of pursuing my career goals merely because of a high school test score.

Latricia Wilson is a student at Tennessee Technology Center.