High school exit exams: Issues to consider

High school exit exams hold schools and students accountable for teaching and learning key skills.

By GreatSchools Staff

Twenty-six states either currently have a high school exit exam or plan to put one in place. Given the number of high school students in these states, it means that exit exams affect more than two-thirds of the nation's public high school students. These exams vary from state to state in terms of content and opportunities for students who do not pass to retake the test and/or demonstrate competency.

More than half of all states will have a high school exit exam by 2012

As of June 2008, in 23 states students had to pass a high school exit exam to graduate. A handful of others have plans in the near future to make the high school exit exam a graduation requirement: Maryland has plans to require its students to pass an exam in 2009 (although some members of the state Board of Education are working to delay this requirement), Arkansas in 2010, and Oklahoma in 2012.

States requiring students to pass a high school exit exam
Alabama Louisiana New York
Alaska Maryland North Carolina
Arizona Massachusetts Ohio
California Minnesota South Carolina
Florida Missouri Tennessee
Georgia Nevada Texas
Idaho New Jersey Virginia
Indiana New Mexico Washington

What subjects are tested?

Most states include reading, writing and math as part of their high school exit exams. Some states, such as Florida (which currently includes only reading and math in its test), are phasing in other subjects. Nine states use end-of-course tests (biology, for example) rather than specific grade-level tests. That means that students take the test for a specific subject, such as biology, after they have completed the course rather than taking the test at a specific grade level.

The tests are getting more rigorous

While the number of states that have implemented high school exit exams continues to increase, so has the difficulty of the tests. In 2002 only six states based their exit exams on 10th-grade standards or higher. By 2006 the number had increased to 18. But passing the high school exam doesn't necessarily mean that a student is prepared for college, as most high school exit exams only test skills students should master by the completion of 10th grade.

What happens when a student doesn't pass?

Most states offer remediation and opportunities to take the test again. This may include remediation classes during the school day, before or after school and during the summer.

End-of-course exams are a growing trend

In order to improve overall accountability and to better align curriculum and standards, many states are moving toward implementing end-of-course exams to replace or add to the high school exit exam. Students take end-of-course exams as they complete the respective courses in subjects such as English, math, and the sciences.

Four states currently have end-of-course exams in place. By 2015, 11 states will rely on end-of-course tests to determine if a student gets a high school diploma, and three more will have a dual testing system that includes the high school exit exam and end-of-course exams. The 14 states that will use end-of-course exams by 2015 are: Arkansas, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.

Some states have put in place or are considering "backdoor" options

In New Jersey, for example, students who don't pass the exit exam have the option to show their "portfolio" of work and can receive a diploma that way. In 2007, 11.5 % of New Jersey' seniors earned their diplomas by showing portfolios. This raises two questions: Does the portfolio demonstrate the same level of competency as passing the exit exam, or are too many students using the portfolio as an easier road to graduation?

In Oregon, plans are in place for a high school exit exam that lets students pick from three options: a national test, state assessments, or a local version, such as a student portfolio, to show colleges and employers they have mastered reading, writing, applied math and speaking skills. Passage on any one of the three, along with fulfilling course requirements, would guarantee a diploma.

A political battle

The high school exit exam has been a political hot potato. The courts have taken up the issue of the fairness of the test in several states. In California, one case went all the way to the state Supreme Court. The court decided the test could remain in place as a graduation requirement.

Many would agree that the aim of the test — to encourage students to achieve basic competency in core subjects and to make the high school diploma more meaningful — is a good goal. But it is a challenging one. Faced with high failure rates, some states have postponed making the exit exam a graduation requirement or adopted new standards for the exit exams that led to higher passing rates. Critics argue that these states are lowering their standards to ensure that more students pass. Others fear that requiring a graduation test will discourage students — particularly low-income, minority and English language learners — and cause them to drop out.

It is difficult to measure the effect of exit exams on dropout rates because most states do not accurately track students who change schools or simply drop out, and states do not include dropout rates when calculating pass rates for the exam.

Hidden costs present challenges

The costs are considerable for a state, as well as individual school districts, to put in place a high school exit exam and help students meet the standards required by the test. For example, it costs Indiana, a state with an exit exam of average difficulty, $557 per student to maintain the state's current level of performance on the exam, according to the Center on Education Policy.

Many states have developed support programs for students and committed more resources to help students pass the exams. Texas, for example, spent $2 million for personalized study guides for students who did not pass a section of the exit TAKS.

Teachers may need additional training (which means additional cost) to learn how to effectively prepare students to pass the high school exit exam. Costs for this training vary from state to state. Massachusetts spends an additional $101 per student, while Minnesota spends $3 per student.

These costs are great, but it is important to note that there are also considerable costs associated with students graduating without the basic skills that exit exams require. Students who graduate without basic skills are more likely to need remedial courses in community college or at a four-year university, and if they choose not to continue their education, they are more likely to earn less and require more government services.

What role does No Child Left Behind play?

State high school exit exams are different from the federal testing requirements of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). NCLB mandates that students be tested in high school but does not require these tests be used as a graduation requirement.

High school exit exams are making waves

There is evidence that high school exit exams are changing classroom instruction so that it is better aligned with the state standards and helping students achieve basic competency. But according to a recent Center on Education Policy study, teachers who must devote significant time to the basics to ensure that struggling students pass the exams have less time to focus on in-depth learning, such as reading longer works of literature and developing higher-level critical thinking skills.