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High School Exit Exams: Worth the Fuss?


Q. Are high school exit exams a good way to let us know how effective our schools are, and how "college-ready" or "job-ready" our students are?


They've become a political football, unfortunately, in the 24 states which require passage of a state-devised standardized test to gain a high-school diploma. Especially in bellwether states like Florida and Texas, where thousands of students, mostly minorities, have lost out on diplomas because of failing the exams, the political repercussions have been enormous. But there are still plenty of people who think exit exams are a good accountability tool.


Perhaps because of a desire to "look good on paper," state education officials might have been "dumbing down" their tests to make sure most kids could pass them, throwing doubt on the validity of the scores as published.


Of equal concern is that, if the tests are indeed "dumbed down," then that's a reflection of the high school curriculum being equally "dumbed down." A study by Achieve Inc., of high-school graduation exams in Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio and Texas concluded that the math tests were over material that students in other countries learned in seventh and eighth grades, and the English content should have been covered by 10th grade or before.


There's an ongoing debate over whether the tests are good because they will force the education system to be better, or bad, because the ones who will be punished are the students who are already getting punished by receiving substandard schooling.


Those who favor exit exams say that they provide a much-needed "brand" on a high school graduate that employers want, to demonstrate that the graduate has basic skills and is capable of doing a good job. They say that "social promotion" and easy graduation requirements, especially in low-income areas, are making high school diplomas not worth the paper they're printed on, in employers' eyes, so the tests are important to keep the quality sufficient to guarantee employers a reasonably good employee.


Those who oppose them say that exit exams "push out" students because they are too difficult, and cause them to drop out of high school without a diploma. The New York Times reported in 2003 that certain high schools were deliberating forcing struggling students to drop out BEFORE the statewide test was given so that the statistics would be better overall. There was even a boycott of certain Florida industries called for by minority leaders in 2003 over the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.


But a study of exit exams in Texas and Florida by John Warren and Krista Jenkins of the University of Minnesota, and several others, have shown that there is no link between having to pass an exit exam and dropping out.


Researchers such as Jay P. Greene contend that exit exams are so easy, they disqualify very few students, and in most places, you can take and re-take the test several times to try to pass. The more times a student takes a test, the more likely he or she is to eventually pass it out of sheer familiarity and practice.


However, a small number of students across the nation do fail to graduate because of exit exams, and so the exams are probably providing a small amount of better quality control than we had before. It also is impossible to say how many more students graduated than would have otherwise, because of the presence of the exit exams, since the whole idea is to encourage schools to do a better job teaching their students in order to do well on the tests. Whenever teaching gets better, students are benefitted.


Homework: For a fascinating account of the controversial Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, TAAS, see the book, Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It by Peter Sacks.


By Susan Darst Williams Testing 09 2008


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