High School Exit Exams Set Low Bar
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
States are setting a low bar for high school seniors and requiring only middle school knowledge to pass English and mathematics exit exams to graduate, according to a study released June 10.
Achieve Inc., a bipartisan, nonprofit education organization formed by governors and prominent business leaders, analyzed public high school graduation exams in Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio and Texas. Students in those states make up a quarter of the nation's high school students and half of U.S. students who must take exit exams to earn a diploma.
Math tests required for high school diplomas in those six states measure what students in other countries are learning in seventh and eighth grades, Achieve concluded.
The study also found that English exit exams in those states cover material that most U.S. students should have covered by 10th grade or earlier. Standards for passing both the mathematics and English tests are "only a fraction" of what colleges and employers expect, according to the analysis.
Achieve compared the states' math standards to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, which has examined curricula and teaching methods around the globe every four years since 1995. The English tests were compared to a scale developed by ACT Inc., formerly American College Testing, one of the nation's two major college-admissions testing organizations.
"Given where the bar on these tests is currently set and compared to the expectations colleges and employers have for high school graduates, it is perfectly reasonable to require students to pass these exams," said Achieve's Executive Vice President Matthew Gandal.
The report is the latest salvo in the ongoing battle over high-stakes testing. Students in 20 states must pass exit exams to earn a high school diploma, and at least four more states will require the tests by 2008. Supporters argue that the tests help raise expectations for all students and increase the value of the high school diploma.
Critics say that the exams are unfair because low-income and minority students generally fail at much higher rates than other groups of students. Instead of improving the academic performance of disadvantaged groups, the exams will push more students to drop out, critics argue.
So far, states have been caught in the middle of a heated debate over whether the tests will force improvements in the education system or just punish students who are receiving substandard schooling.
In Massachusetts this year, 96 percent of the senior class passed the state exams and will earn their diplomas. Achieve President Michael Cohen, who was an education adviser to President Bill Clinton, called that a "remarkable success." The passing rate is especially good news considering that less than half of students passed the tests in 1998, he said.
But controversy erupted last year in Florida when nearly 13,000 students, mostly minorities, were denied diplomas after failing the state's exams.
If the tests are really only at a middle-school level, then the public should be alarmed at the failure rates in some states, said Patte Barth, a policy analyst at the Education Trust, in reaction to the Achieve study. And the high number of minority and low-income students who fail is another sign of inequities in the school systems, she said.
Keith Gayler, associate director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C., was not surprised by Achieve's analysis. States should set a higher bar for their high school diplomas, but they also need to ensure that students are getting enough preparation for the tests, he said.
In Nevada last year, state officials had to lower the passing score for their mathematics exam, which required a large amount of algebraic knowledge, Gayler said. But not every high schooler took algebra because there was no statewide requirement, he said.
To avoid that problem, Maryland and Virginia students must pass exams at the end of several required courses, Gayler said.
To graduate, Maryland students must take courses and state exams in English, algebra, biology and government. But failing the tests does not yet count against graduation. The state Board of Education will vote next week whether to require students to pass the tests to earn a diploma beginning with the class of 2009.
The class of 2004 is the first in Virginia required to pass two end-of-course exams in English and tests on four other courses of the student's choosing to earn a diploma. The class of 2007 will have to pass two English exams, as well as tests in math, science, social studies and one course that the student chooses.
Requiring more than one test is one of the recommendations of the Achieve study, which also suggests that states gradually make their exit exams more challenging. States also could require a research project or a portfolio of student work to assess a student's academic achievement, it said.
"States cannot afford to back away from these requirements or they risk leaving another generation of young people unprepared," said Achieve's Gandal.