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Examining Exit Exams

Essentials on education data and analysis from research authority AEL

After running a 13-year marathon, 52 percent of all U.S. public school students in 2004 faced a final hurdle as they neared the finish line: mandatory exit exams. The merits and drawbacks of these exams are being debated, and the buzz among onlookers and researchers goes something like this:

Is it fair? Analysis of existing data suggests that students in some subgroups are at greater risk of failing their exit exams than others. Compared with initial exit exam pass rates for white and Asian students, pass rates lag as much as 40 percent (depending on the subject) for low-income, black, and Hispanic students; English-language learners, and students with disabilities.

In 2000, the American Education Research Association released a position statement listing "a set of conditions essential to sound implementation of high-stakes educational testing programs." Among the 12 conditions are multiple opportunities to pass the test (all 25 states with current or planned mandatory exit exams do this, or plan to), meaningful remediation for those who fail (11 states offer prep programs or materials), appropriate attention to students with disabilities (19 of the 25 states allow such students to earn a regular diploma without passing the regular state exam), and special accommodations for English language learners (most states provide few special options).

Some say the hurdle is not that high. Most of the 25 states say their exams are at or near the 10th-grade level, according to data collected by the Center on Education Policy. When researchers from Achieve, Inc., examined test scores in six states, however, they found the math tests equivalent to seventh- and eighth-grade levels and the English tests equivalent to eighth- and ninth-grade ACT test questions.

But the hurdle may get higher. The trend, according to the Center on Education Policy, is "away from tests of basic skills and toward more challenging standards-based or end-of-course tests." In 2004, more states added science and social studies tests, and 15 states now require an essay or other written piece.

Some students might drop out. Researchers have reached no clear consensus on this matter. In 2004, Jay Greene and Marcus Winters used two different graduation rate calculations to evaluate the effect of high school exit exams on graduation rates in 18 states. They found "no significant effect" overall but acknowledged that "exit exams stop at least some students from earning a diploma."

But there's more than one way to get a diploma. Many states offer alternate and substitute tests, waivers, exemptions, or alternate diplomas. About 15 percent of New Jersey's graduates earn their diplomas through an alternative testing program. But elsewhere, few students take "the paths less traveled."

What's the purpose of the hurdle? The use of exit exams grew out of the standards movement and has emerged as a policy tool intended to motivate improvement among schools and students. Some in the business sector view the exams as "quality control for high school diplomas."

Some news is good. Exit exams seem to encourage schools to cover more state standards and to provide extra help for students at risk of failing.

It's not all good. But the National Research Council also finds that high-stakes tests can discourage the lowest-performing students, narrow the curriculum and up professional development costs.

What's a district to do? Leaders can be aware of the above-mentioned costs and trade-offs. They can align the taught curriculum to state standards. And they can evaluate their district on what the Center on Education Policy calls the next major challenge: providing "adequate opportunity" for students to "learn the knowledge and skills needed to pass exit exams."

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