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PUSHED OUT OR PULLED UP?: New Manhattan Institute Report Argues Exit Exams Do Not Affect Graduation Rates

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"While it seems intuitive that raising the requirements for graduation would force graduation rates downward, the evidence on this subject is far from clear."

A new report released from the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research discusses the effect of high school exit exams on the dropout rate. In Pushed Out or Pulled Up? Exit Exams and Dropout Rates in Public High Schools, Jay Greene and Marcus Winters tackle the often-discussed issue of whether exit exams drive already low graduation rates even lower.

According to the report, it is not evident that exit exams increase the requirements for graduation at all. As Greene and Winters explain, “While it seems intuitive that raising the requirements for graduation would force graduation rates downward, the evidence on this subject is far from clear.” In reality, the report claims, the idea that exit exams cause higher dropout rates is based on spurious anecdotal evidence.

In an effort to ensure that high school diplomas are meaningful, and that high school graduates meet the basic thresholds of academic proficiency and job readiness, twenty-four states have adopted exit exams that students must pass before graduating. The argument for exit exams is that diplomas may lose their value as an indicator of academic achievement if students graduate lacking even basic proficiency. Therefore, requiring a certain score on an objective standardized test should guarantee that students have, in fact, earned their diploma.

Greene and Winters evaluated the graduation data from each of these states using two different methods, one used by the National Center of Education Statistics and the other devised by Greene himself. Both analyses found that high school exit exams have no significant effect on a state’s graduation rate.

Specifically, the authors contend that exams have no net effect on graduation rates for two reasons. Their first theory is that passing exit exams requires very low levels of academic proficiency; the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation gave an overall rating of “poor” to the rigor of state-mandated standardized tests. The second reason is that, in many cases, students are given multiple chances to pass the exams before they are finally denied a diploma. As Greene and Winters explain, “Exit exam requirements may not only be a low hurdle, but students have multiple chances to jump the hurdle.”

According to Keith Gayler, the associate director of the Center on Education Policy, the Manhattan Institute report is far from the definitive answer on the subject of exit exams. “There’s only so many data points they can control for,” he told Education Week. “The report points out again the difficulty in answering the question now-and just means that the debate is still up in the air.”

In State High School Exit Exams: Put to the Test, released in late 2003 by the Center on Education Policy, exams “appear to have a positive impact on curriculum and instruction, and appear to encourage schools to cover more of the state standards and add remedial and other special courses for students at risk of failing.” However, the center also pointed out that a moderate amount of evidence suggests that exams are associated with higher dropout rates.

Additionally, State High School Exit Exams: A Baseline Report, released in late 2002 by the
center, raises concerns that as more students are required to pass exams, states are not moving fast enough to adequately address issues for disadvantaged, minority and disabled students who are most likely to fail the exams on the first go-round. A potential long-term result is more high school dropouts.

Pushed Out or Pulled Up? is available at http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/ewp_05.htm.

The Center on Education Policy reports are available at http://www.ctredpol.org/highschoolexit/.

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