High School Exit Exams Challenge States
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
States are forging ahead with high school exit exams despite opposition from irate parents, anxious students and critics who complain the tests tend to flunk poor, minority and disabled students more than whites, a new report said Aug. 13.
More than half of all public school students currently live in states that require they pass "exit exams" in order to graduate, according to the Center on Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that describes itself as an advocate for public education. The center said it receives its funding from private charitable foundations, such as The Atlantic Philanthropies.
The report, State High School Exit Exams: Put To The Test, finds that by 2008, 24 states will require exit exams. Nineteen states currently have the tests and five more are to join the fold over the next five years.
The report looks at every state that has or plans to have exit exams and lays out the general pros and cons of such exams. On the plus side, the report said exit exams tend to push schools to align their coursework with state standards and to offer special courses for students at risk for failing. On the minus side, these tests may squeeze out coursework not covered on the tests and may make it harder for minorities, disabled and poor students to graduate high school.
In spite of some public resistance to the tests and lackluster results, most states aren't dropping exit exams. Those that have or plan exit exams told the center they intend to use these tests to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind. That federal law requires that states test all students at least once between grades 10 and 12 in math and English by 2005-2006.
Dan Langan, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said No Child Left Behind neither encourages nor discourages exit exams. "Whether or not a state decides to put in place a high school exit exam is entirely up to the state," he told Stateline.org.
Opposition to exit exams intensified in 2003 as "thousands" of students were denied diplomas, the report said. This year, Massachusetts withheld diplomas for the first time from students who failed exit exams. Six other states Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey and New York updated or added new subjects to their exit exams, the report said.
States responded differently to public opposition to their exit exams. The report said this year that states:
- Gave waivers Florida policymakers passed a measure allowing high school seniors who flunked the state exit exam to use SAT scores or American College Test scores to get their diplomas. Some 12,500 students faced the possibility of not graduating because they failed the state exam.
- Delayed tests Maryland pushed back a year its exit exam graduation requirement to 2008 and California bumped its exam two years to 2006.
- Lowered minimum scores Nevada lowered the score needed to pass for math after only 36 percent of students passed the math test on the first try. Texas will phase in higher cut scores over two years because of concerns about low pass rates.
- Voided test results New York nullified results of the state's math exam and allowed local school authorities to give diplomas to seniors who failed the test but passed the course work.
- Dropped new mandates -- Georgia decided not to go with a more difficult exit exam and will keep its current easier test and North Carolina opted not to implement an exam that was scheduled to be implemented in 2004.
- Held firm Louisiana made no changes to its exam even though when it switched to a new test in 2003, pass rates dropped to 65 percent from 74 percent in math and 78 percent from 81 percent in English.
In the report, CEP urged states to monitor the effects of exit exams and give the core reforms "time to work."
"While states want to refrain from watering down requirements, they are seeing low pass rates for minority, poor and disabled students," Jack Jennings, director of CEP, said in a statement.
The gaps in pass rates between white and African American students in reading range from a 5-point difference in Georgia to a 41-point difference in Florida. And in math, the gap ranges from 17 points in Georgia to 45 points in Minnesota.
Exit exams also aren't cheap. The center estimated Indiana's exit exam program, which it described as typical and well-developed, to cost about $442 million, or $444 per pupil, equal to 5.5 percent of the state's K-12 expenditures.
"States should stop treating exit exams as if they are low-cost or no-cost solutions to reform schools," according to Jennings, who formerly was the general counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Education. The center said states should not expect local school districts to bear the lion's share of the costs of implementing exit exams.
The report also recommends that states that have exit exams include "remediation" for students who fail the exams and professional development to help teachers prepare students for the exams.
The National Education Association, the country's largest teachers' union, said it does not support "using one single test to make such important decisions about a child's future, especially one that has such as lasting effect on students," said NEA spokeswoman Anjetta McQueen.
David Salisbury, director of the center for educational freedom at the Cato Institute, a libertarian group, said the report's findings showcase the failures of public schools and the importance of school choice. "We need to give these students more choice of other schools ... Let the consumers chose whether they want to go to a school that has an exit exam requirement."