The Case Against Exit Exams

Students today cannot afford to be high school dropouts any more than they can afford to enter college and the workforce unprepared. Luckily, the transition to college- and career-ready standards across the country offers states the opportunity to fully reimagine how they can best ensure students not only graduate from high school, but do so ready to succeed in higher education and on the job.

The new standards open possibilities for richer instruction, better curricula, and more deliberate alignment between secondary and postsecondary learning. And the new assessments states are launching next year to match the standards will play a critical role in their successful implementation. The tests need to tell public officials whether schools and educators are positively influencing learning and encouraging student growth. They need to tell teachers whether their individual students are making progress and whether their instructional practices are effective. They need to tell families whether their students are on track to college and career readiness. And they need to tell students, especially high school students, whether they are likely to need remediation before starting college-level classes. But the new assessments do not need to be exit exams—at least, that’s the argument I make in a new report released today, “The Case Against Exit Exams.”

For starters, the research on the effectiveness of exit exams—standardized tests students are required to take and pass in order to graduate high school—is murky, at best. Over the last forty years, these tests have not consistently improved student achievement, high school graduation rates, postsecondary attainment, or workforce outcomes—and have often made vulnerable students, like low-income and minority youth, even more so.

But most important, exit exams can make states’ efforts to introduce college- and career-ready expectations compete against their efforts to ensure more students get those opportunities, when they should be working together. Here’s what I mean. On their own, the college- and career-ready tests only aim to determine who is ready for college. But when used as exit exams, they could now also determine who is able to go to college by earning a diploma. States have to choose what’s more important: holding students accountable, via exit exams, for meeting the higher standards, or setting a cut score on the exit exams that is realistic, but not rigorous, so that nearly every student can graduate. In all likelihood, states will choose the latter, unwilling and unable to suddenly deny high school degrees to large numbers of students, particularly those who are already at-risk. In this way, states could unintentionally dilute the rigor of the college-and career-ready benchmark if meeting that score is tied to graduation.

These tensions between higher standards and higher educational attainment may also be feeding some of the transition chaos around the Common Core and the related assessments being developed by PARCC and Smarter Balanced. While there are a host of factors working against the new standards and/or tests in states like Florida, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, exit exams may be one reason for the hesitation to adopt new high school tests, based on five state profiles created for the report: the Honor Roll, the Varsity Athletes, the Exchange Students, the Loners, and the Drama Club.

State Profiles & HSEE

While 24 states had exit exams in place last year, “The Case Against Exit Exams” finds that as many as 21 could continue these policies in the future, including 10 states that are using PARCC or Smarter Balanced in high schools. Among these states, six consortia members are choosing a transition strategy that is particularly challenging—and nuanced—in its execution, as they seek to maintain continuity in exit exam policies while making changes to the underlying exams. Maryland, Mississippi, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, and Washington are now deploying strategies to minimize the risk to students during the transition to new tests, as well as the risks to the quality of the tests if the scores are used for graduation decisions. These include:

  • phasing in new requirements gradually,
  • only using the results from lower-level subjects as exit exams, and
  • setting two distinct cut scores: one for graduation, and a higher one for readiness.

These strategies are a sensible response to help ease the tensions that come with exit exams between accountability for higher standards and opportunities for higher educational attainment. But an even better response would be to eliminate exit exams entirely. The desire to motivate high school students to work hard, to make a high school diploma a meaningful achievement and a valuable credential to employers and colleges, and to assess college and career readiness are all worthwhile goals, but each can be accomplished in another way, without relying on exit exams. “The Case Against Exit Exams” identifies alternative policy approaches these states can use, including:

  • Streamlining high school testing by using state standardized assessments as final exams and applying the results toward final course grades, rather than as graduation requirements;
  • Replacing punitive stakes with positive ones by giving students scoring at the college- and career-ready level access to accelerated coursework in high school, state merit-based financial aid or scholarship programs, and automatic placement into credit-bearing courses at in-state public colleges and universities;
  • Indicating on high school transcripts if students have earned a college- and career-ready distinction by performing at the highest levels on state assessments, in addition to taking a college preparatory curriculum, completing a career pathway, or mastering other core competencies. States could also consider moving toward an entirely competency-based approach to high school assessment and graduation requirements; and
  • Using new college- and career-ready assessments in a much more diagnostic way, especially for students that are not on track to being fully prepared by high school graduation, so that these students can be identified earlier and given targeted remediation to bolster their skills before they enter higher education.

You can read the whole paper here.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]