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Are High School Exit Exams An Unnecessary Barrier To Graduation?

Brandon Lewis, a junior at Miami's Dr. Michael M. Krop High School, passed Algebra I, but has struggled with the end-of-course exam in that subject.

The US high school graduation rate is at an all-time high. But why? NPR Ed partnered with 14 member stations around the country to bring you the stories behind that number. Check out the rest of the stories here in our slideshow. And find out what's happening in your state.

Eight times Brandon Lewis has taken Florida's Algebra I end-of-course exam. And eight times he's failed it, once coming just two points short of passing.

Lewis is a junior at Miami's Dr. Michael M. Krop High School. Lewis passed the class his first year, but Florida also requires that students pass a state exam in a handful of key courses, including Algebra I. He's worried the test will keep him from graduating.

"It hurts when you're isolated from the other group of kids," Lewis says, "and you feel like you're slow and that you can't do anything to, like, pass that test."

The dual graduation requirements – class and test — are a hallmark of Florida education policy over the past 15 years. Led by former Gov. Jeb Bush and the education advocacy group he founded, state lawmakers and educators have consistently pushed to raise the bar for students hoping to earn a high school diploma.

In 2010, lawmakers briefly added Algebra II and a choice of Chemistry or Physics to the list of high school graduation requirements that already included reading, writing and basic math. That meant students would have had to pass both the class and the end-of-course exam, or EOC, in multiple high-level courses.

The more you ask of students, supporters argued at the time, the more you'll get from them. But in 2013, before those changes had gone into effect, many worried that these tougher courses would become a barrier to graduation for some students, and the state made them optional.

"In some recent years, we have had a forgotten half of students in our system," state Rep. Elizabeth Porter said in 2013 as Florida rolled back some of those 2010 graduation requirements. "These were the students that didn't necessarily want to go to university. These were students that had other goals in mind."

Today, Algebra II, Chemistry and Physics are not required to graduate, though students who take and pass them can earn a special "scholar" diploma.

Like most states, Florida's high school graduation rate has risen in recent years, from 71 percent in 2011 to 76 percent in 2013. But it's still among the nation's worst – just seven states and the District of Columbia have a lower graduation rate.

And, despite the relaxed course requirements, student Brandon Lewis still has to pass that Algebra I exam. Assuming he can do that, he wants to study mortuary science or become a guidance counselor to help students like him.

"You never know what people go through at home," he says. "And I feel like that's my calling."

Lewis' mother, Hillivi Cunningham, teaches elementary math in Miami-Dade County. At some point, she says, her advice just wasn't helping anymore. She's tried tutors, too.

"Yes, he failed the test," Cunningham says. "Maybe his strong point isn't math. But he's not a dumb child, and that's the bottom line: He feels, at the end of the day, defeated. And as a parent that really crushes me."

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