Education Policy | News

End High School Exit Exams in Light of Common Core, Researchers Argue

States will need to revisit or even abandon high school exit exams in the very near future or risk one of two potentially disastrous outcomes: either preventing a large percentage of students from receiving a high school diploma or undermining the rigor of college- and career-ready standards, according to a new report..

A Potentially 'Catastrophic' Collision
The report, released today by the New America Foundation, "The Case Against Exit Exams," argued that college- and career-ready standards are on a collision course with high school exit exams. There are essentially two options for states that are adopting the standards and choosing to use exit exams based on Common Core assessments:

  1. Set the cut rates for exit exams to reflect college and career readiness accurately, which would result in millions of students being denied high school diplomas, since it's estimated that "only 39 percent of the nation's high school seniors were prepared for college-level math, and only 38 percent were prepared in reading," based on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP);
  2. Or, more likely, lower the passing threshold of the exams by "gaming" the exit exams to allow students to receive diplomas without being truly college- or career-ready, which would obviously undermine the purpose of adopting the standards in the first place.

According to the report: "... [T]wo key elements of state policy are about to collide as states launch their new standards and assessment systems. If college- and career-ready standards and tests are simply fitted into states' existing infrastructure of high-stakes exit exams and graduation requirements, the pipeline of students from high school to college and the workforce could suddenly, catastrophically, clench shut. But if history is any indication, that is unlikely to happen. Instead, the impulse to avoid this outcome would be predictable: the dilution of the college- and career-ready standards and/or lower cut scores on the new assessments so that more students can pass and graduate."

What's the likelihood of danger here? According to the report, "at the time of [a 2012 survey], over 70 percent of Common Core-adopting states with exit exams planned to replace them wholesale with a consortia-designed assessment in English Language Arts and math."

Why Exit Exams?
Why do exit exams continue to be administered? There are two key goals of these assessments identified by the authors: "First, an exit exam would increase student achievement overall by setting a clear standard for high school learning and by motivating students to earn the more meaningful, and valuable, diploma. Second, an exit exam would improve students' postsecondary success by providing a clear signal to employers or colleges that graduates possessed valuable skills."

However, whether exit exams actually further these goals is highly dubious. The report's authors argued that while most research on the effectiveness of exit exams was shaky at best, in cases where evidence was conclusive, the evidence pointed toward negative or neutral consequences for students.

For example, according to the report, high school exit exams:

  • Have no impact on achievement for low-performing students;
  • Have no impact on college enrollment for average students;
  • Have no overall effect on employment;
  • Are associated with a increased probability of dropping out for those who fail "last chance" exams, particularly for low-income and minority students; and
  • Also for those who fail last chance tests, are associated with reduced earnings just after high school.

So is there another way to accomplish the stated goals of exit exams while also avoiding the drawbacks?

Alternatives to Exit Exams
There are alternatives to exit exams that would allow states to maintain academic rigor and ensure that diplomas have meaning.

According to the New America Foundation: "For example, states should consider using standardized tests toward final course grades, or placing positive, rather than punitive, stakes on the results, such as automatic placement into credit-bearing courses at public colleges and universities. These policies avoid the costs of exit exams, like higher dropout rates for vulnerable students, without giving up on their benefits, including setting clear standards for high school learning, motivating students to reach higher standards, and providing a clear signal to employers and colleges that graduates possess valuable skills."

The complete report, "The Case Against Exit Exams," is available online in PDF form.

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