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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.

Comments from readers

"being the adoptive mother of 4 foreign born older children, the state testing has been a huge issue to my family . 2 of my kids so far have not graduated due to this; they completed all the required classes and credits but did not graduate; the school just says, you can return and retake the test when it is offered; how is this ethical, acceptable and most of all, legal ?? "
"I have a child who is a straight A's student but she failed the exit exam. What are the responsibilities of the school, teachers, and my child as well? "
"please contact me asap i need you help to finish my high school diploma. i have copmpleted my high school certificate of attendence and would seriously like to finish my diploma..please help me find a way to fix my life thank ouy so much eunixes acosta "
"why mississippi is not included this is the place we need more help? "
"I want to ask a question, Im 22 years old i have all my high school credits, I only passed the reading an writting Aims test, I didn't pass my math aims test, is there a way I can still get my high school diploma..? "
"As a teacher of high school students I want to share my thoughts... Everyday, I work my hardest to engage, teach, and help students. I spend my own money in my room to give students supplies and materials, access to programs on the Internet that aren't free, and technology equipment. Everyday, some of my students try their best. This comment isn't directed towards the majority of my students. It is directed to the students who don't care about the process of learning, who don't do work and then expect a pay-off later. Everyday, some of my students don't do their work. Everyday, some of my students tell me they hate school and they are dropping out. Some of them tell me so what they failed my projects or papers. But those same students want a diploma. When they don't get one, sometimes they never get a good paying job. Do you know who is held accountable for their lousy scores on the end of course exams - not them - me! Teachers are held accountable for students who don't do the work. Why am I held accountable for their lack of work ethic, intrinsic motivation, and overall lousy attitude? I'm tired of students expecting something for nothing. I'm tired of them quitting school and expecting me to support them. Here's my opinion... if you quit school or you fail because you just don't care... I don't think you should get a diploma or WELFARE. Why should I support people who don't take education seriously? When people are forced to support themselves, they will begin to value education. Quit making excuses and do the work. American and teachers are tired of people doing lousy work in school and then not liking the lousy jobs you get because of it; therefor you choose not to work at all. Quit whining. If you make lousy choices, you are going to have a lousy consequence YOU SHOULD HAVE TO LIVE WITH, NOT ME! "
"My personal opinion not everyone are test takers. So I also think that there are other ways to show the students also meet GPA Grade Point Average, Attendence over 95% Attendance byand also pre testing and summer school to meet if they do not meet the state standards and also recommendations from the Superintendent, Prinpical, Gudiance Counselor and also a panel from other teachers from the school sometime other co students parents. It also meets summer school where the students needs to have extra help or night school or study hall to give hel or even after school too.I also think that minority children that also do not speak English as thier first language she waited to be test around the Freshman year she each year they get use to testing so if they pased on thier Freshman year they have three more changes to pass the test. They take it only one in the school year so they also do not get burned out of testing. It is like taking ACT OR SAT for them. They also should have ! tips on taking the test like sleep early eat healthy breakfast and always go back to the ones later and work on the ones they knew to the questions. Always go with thier first choices."
"I think the exit exam is stupid because even if your a straight A student and you don't pass then you have to be left behind because of some bullshit stuff like that , I went to a continuation school and luckily they waved diplomas so i got mines without passing which was the good part but i still don't think its fair to other student though."
"well, i passed both of the test the first time, but i didn't get a diploma; mainly because of the 'senior project' that my school district makes seniors do. i don't think it's fair to make students take both the exit exams AND a senior project, because our graduating depended on BOTH of them. It's not fair for the students who aren't very good at writing or presenting in front of large groups."
"I am writing a paper on exit exams today. I can see both sides of the story, but (as a teacher) I tend to come down on the side of implementing exit exams. As a society, a high school diploma needs to mean something--that the person has met certain requirements. In Texas, if you are a student served under IDEA or 504, you can be ARDed to graduate with a certificate of completion--rather than a diploma. The certificate means that you went to school for 13 years and completed all the required courses. It does NOT mean that you met graduation requirements (passing the exit level TAKS). You get to walk in graduation with your class--no one but you and your family know that you have a certificate instead of a diploma. Students who receive a certificate of completion can go to college, but they usually must take remedial Reading, English, and Math classes. Some of the kids who pass the exit level TAKS have to take those classes, too. I see a move toward requiring a student to pass the SAT or ACT instead of the exit level TAKS. In my opinion, this would be a mistake. In real life, not everyone plans to go to college--and we shouldn't expect them to meet the same standards as those who are actually interested in going to college and attaining a higher education."
"This Test Has Completely Ruined My Dreams. I was the First Class to Have to take this Filthy Exam, Class OF (2006) I'm 21 years old now and Still Haven't gotten My Diploma because of this test. My High School Completely Forgot About me They have left me in the Dark. I have failed The Math Part 4 Times, But has passed the English Part the First Try. This test Completely Split me aside From My Friends Because They passed it and i Did not. They would Call me 'STUPID Retard' and me 17 at the time i would get Hurt, and Still Do. I even Thought About Suicide because I felt Different From The other Kids That passed. I was at a GPA of 3.5 and was pretty much an 'A' Student. Till this Day I stress everyday for not having a Diploma. And Even Worst I was part Of The Los Angeles Unified School District, Maybe one of the worst Districts In the Country. This Test Has Completely Killed my Dreams. I don't know what else to do i give up. "
"Most others countries have exit exams which essentially double as entrance exams for (vocational) colleges. Obviously just one test won`t work well. Give students an option ta take a regular, vocational or pre- university test depending on the chosen highschool program. Tells both colleges and employers just what they can expect from a graduate."
"I think that we should require everyone to be nice to the cats. That should be part of the exam."
"To the high school senior taking the taks, i understand the standardized high school exit exams are not necessarily correct, but how do you expect to study pre-law and become a lawyer when you lack the ability to pass a state test made to comply with the standards of the average student. The bar exam is infinitely more difficult as well as the exams you must take to get in graduate school. i don't mean to be offensive but you should reconsider your career path."
"I Don't think it's fare making people pass an Exit Exam. What's the point of attending all twelve years of school. Just because you don't pass an exit exam you don't get a High School Diploma. For my point of view I don't think's it's ok. I also don't think it's ok to make special education student's or people who just came for other country's take that test.I think they should only make student's that keep dropnig in an out take that test that's my point of view."
"hello my child has taken this test 5 times and hasnt pass it yet she makes the same scores this is what i call a child left behind she has done good all the way through school this has really caused her a lot of heart ache she was planning to go to college. She doesnt test well she has done all the requirments for studying for them . Do you think it might be the teachers they dont know how to get her ready . I am tired of test test test what does a test show if you have paseed your classes for 12 years something wrong "
"hello i understand these exit exams are important so that we know what our children have learned,but what about when your child fails 1 of the exams and cannot walk with her class.i dont understand that because they don't get their real diploma anyway until after graduation they give them a daughter missed this exam by a few points and she understands she has another chance to take it and pass it during the summer months but what gives them the right to take away her celebration of going to school for 12 years .she is not allowed to even march with her class even though she has all of her credits and has good grades.she now wants to give up on all of her dreams because she feels like she went to school for 12years for nothing.who does the nclb benefit, not our children.i really do understand the importance of these exams but what i don't understand is why she can't walk with her class.this is very devastating for her and for me as well."
"I understand everything, but I don't understand why is it that we cann't graduate if we don't pass a test. Me being as one of the people that is 18 years old and a senior in high school on the A/B honor roll and I can't pass the taks test is just unfair. I know alot of students that is very smart and failed the taks. I think I should be able to graduate because I go to school, make really good grades, and pass all of my class and didn't have to take a class over. But I can't graduate if I don't pass this last time, So I need for people out there to pray for me that I pass this taks test.I really have high goals for myself to go to college and study pre-law and become a lawyer and I can't do it unless I pass this taks test. So who ever understands me or reading this I just ask for your prays that I pass this TAKS test one last time that I have. THANK YOU ALL."
"Missouri DOES NOT require an EXIT EXAM to graduate. We do require all students take End of Course Exams to fulfill our federal obligation to NCLB. But...students are not required to pass it. Schools have the option of giving 0 - 20% course grade for the test. For students who care to begin with, the level of %, because it is NOT connected with any form of assistance to post-secondary training (of any kind) does not serve as a motivator. They will do their best because they are connected to their own future goals. For those students who could care less, less is what you get. Once again, we have wasted valuable educational dollars on a program geared specifically for that don't care. I for one would love to see schools be held accountable for all those kids who show up every day, do their work and put forth educational effort. If NCLB wants to make an impact that makes sense....rethink the approach! No Cash (Unless YOU) Learn Better! Remove the state welfare link to non-educated persons and I think you'll see a dramatic shift in the importrance of education. Who knows...perhaps we'll even reconnect with 'Work + Effor! t = American Opportunity!' We've seemed to have lost sight of that fact. When did EVERYONE deserve the benefits WITHOUT providing the effort?"
"Although I empathize with the students who shared their stories, I may be one of the few people who do believe that high school exit exams and end of course exit exams do have some merit. Grades given by teachers may be very subjective- a 'C' in Teacher 1's class may be equivalent to an 'A' in Teacher 2's class. Exit exams are ensuring that there is a standardized minimal level of competency achieved by each person who has passed the exam. It doesn't factor in how nicely behaved someone was, how often someone attended class, or how hard someone tried, it factually gives information on whether the person understood the material and is able to manipulate that understanding into working knowledge. These other factors of behavior, attendance, and effort are recognized and given credit in the class grades. Exit exams holds teachers accountable for teaching the standards and holds the student accountable for learning the material. And let's put it into perspective, most exit exams! ' passing levels are not high. To pass the math section of the CA exit exam, a student needs to earn a score of 55%. To pass the NY Regents end of course exam, students need to earn a score of 65%. Although exit exams may not 'significantly improve pupil achievement', it does make a common standard of understanding for the knowledge which was attained in the years spent in high school."
"i am going to school in Missori and they are talkong about makeing students take an exam inorder to graduate i don't think some students will be able to pass it"
"I went to school in Alaska, and it wasn't a requirment to pass the high school math examination to graduate intil' 2005. The year I graduated. Up to then I seemed to have a bright future ahead of me, I totally turned my life around having giving birth to a baby girl in my 8th grade year, I started to take school more seriously and wanted to go to college and make something of my life, my grades improved massively and I worked really hard, but in the end it just wasn't enough. My senior year I got the UA scholarship, which would have gave me $11,000 for college renewable every year depending on my grades, I was so exited, money for college had been a tough subject with my parents, since they had set no money aside for me and I was the first one of all my 6 siblings to actually graduate from high school, which they hadn't expected. there was a catch though, I had to attend a college in Alaska and I had to pass all of my high school qualifying exams as well as maintain a 3.0 GPA. I applied to UAA and loved thier campus, they had housing for me and a day care my daughter could go to while I was in class, everything seemed perfect... intil' testing came around. I passed the reading and writing and even exceeded thier standards, but I kept failing the math. I had the chance to take the math qualifying exam twice before graduation, I got the results 3 days before I was going ot walk with my classmates, I missed it by 2 points, thats like 1 question. I still got to walk but all I got was a certificate of achievement, which I couldn't go to UAA on and my scholarship was revoked because I failed the math. The test is offered twice a year and I continue to take it, always missing by just a few points. I still live with my parents and my daughters in second grade now, I can't get a job that pays much above minimum wage which forces me to rely on my mom and dad for financial support. I feel like a failure, although everyone always offers words of encouragement and say I'll pass it next time. next time came a long time ago, I'm so frustrated with the whole thing, since my little certificate of achievement is about as good as dropping out I don't know why I even tried to do good in school. yeah my family is proud because I stuck with it and I'm still trying, but I just feel as if I wasted 4 years of my life and now I'm just chasing this impossible dream. "
"I am in total disagreement with the high school exit exams. Why are we testing our children with an exam that determines if our children get a HS Diploma or not!! Isn't this why we send them to 12 sometimes 13 years of school!! They are earning that Diploma with each year they attend school, with each grade they pass. Know the government says not only do we have to send our children to school and pass each grade with a certain grade, they now have to pass an exit exam or they will not get a diploma! HOW FAIR IS THIS!!!! If your child attends school, meets all the requirements required to pass each class, gets the credits they need, THEN by george you had better give that child their Diploma. From what I have been reading , there are students out there that make A's & B's, have good attendance records, do everything required of them to receive their HS Diploma, and miss passing the exit exam by just a matter of points. That student doesn't get their diploma, they get a certificate for attending. The exit exam is not going to determine if your child is ready for college or not, it only determines if the teachers prep our childr! en well enough to pass the exam. Thats what school curriculums have come down to, teaching the 'EXIT EXAM'. "
"I do not agree on the high school exit exam as a way of determining whether or not a student graduates or not. I believe that students take enough test in school to determine whether or not they comprehend a subject or not, so if these kids can pass their class with a 2.0 or greater grade point average let them graduate, if not then have them take a test to graduate after having to attendf summer schoool, that would motivate the kids, parents and teachers to pay closer attention to these students education."
"This test SHATTERED my child's DREAM to be the first in a large family to graduate. My child passed all classes but failed the science part of this exit exam. My child was told that he/ she could not study or prepare for any part of this test. While taking this test, many of the questions on the test were never studied in any of the science class that he/ she ever took. HOW IS THAT FAIR! Now my child has been robbed of the dream to attend the ceremony and help celebrate with friends and peers. This is supposed to be part of the No Child Left Behind Act, but my child was left behind feeling that all these years of attending school and passing grades was for nothing but a devasting nightmare in the end."
"I don't believe the High School Exit exams are meant to hurt our children nor remove the responsiblity of teching from there teachers. By right if you don't have the basic knowledge or understanding of math, science, or english why should you be allowed to graduate? You can try to go to a Community College to pick up the pieces you didn't understand in High School, but now instead of it being 'free' it's costing money that could have been going towards other things. It's not fair for our students to leave HS as an 'adult child' being sent off to 'adulthood' with a elemetry school level reading and writing level which is what I see in my line of work everyday. They don't understand what they're reading, and don't realize the contracts once signed, leagally, they're screwed. I'm not saying everyone coming out of HS is lacking, but with a exiting test, they can be halted at the door and that skill strenthened so they'll be better prepared for life. "
"They don't hold the schools accountable, these tests just make the children who can't pass suffer! What about all the years past and millions of Americans who received their diplomas in the past without having to take an exit exam? But, if you are unlucky enough to be graduating after 2007 in California you don't earn one if you can't pass the test. I wonder what really is the motivation behind these tests? If you attend and pass your classes then you should receive a diploma. If it is about making schools accountable, that is unfair. Why are teachers always having to prove themselves anyways, don't they work hard enough? "
"Keep the tests as they hold schools accountble to provide basic skills needed. But have another TRACK for those new to this culture...where they are compared to others also new to this culture & language. Have another track for those who might be slow learners. But also have an INCENTIVE for slow learners to move into the regular track Perhaps special summer courses - and a reward for moving into the regular track."