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STATE HIGH SCHOOL EXIT EXAMS: As State Exit Exams Transition Toward College and Career Readiness, New CEP Report Raises Possibility of More Students Being Left Behind

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“While high schools should prepare all students for college or careers, policymakers must consider whether all students have had the opportunity to learn the content of these new, more rigorous standards before attaching such high stakes to the exams.”

State high school exit exams continue to evolve, increasingly focusing on college and career readiness, a new report from the Center on Education Policy (CEP) finds. The broad acceptance of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), now adopted by forty-six states and the District of Columbia, has prompted many states to amend their exit exam policies, often raising student expectations and questions of how to graduate students from high school who do not meet the more rigorous standards.

According to the report, State High School Exit Exams: A Policy in Transition, twenty-five states currently issue exit exams—tests that high school students must pass in order to receive a diploma—and one additional state plans to do so. These states educate 69 percent of public school students nationwide; the percentages are even higher among African Americans students (71 percent), low-income students (71 percent), English language learners(ELLs) (83 percent), and Hispanic students (85 percent).

Among states with exit exams that have adopted the CCSS, most plan to replace their current exit exams in English language arts and mathematics with new assessments aligned to the CCSS that are being developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. According to the report, a “large majority” of states planning this move believe that the new assessments will be more rigorous than their current ones.

As states begin to shift to the more rigorous, college- and career-ready standards inherent in the CCSS and the new assessments that will accompany them, many students—especially students of color, low-income students, and ELLs—could be left behind, the report finds.

“Students who are already struggling with the current state standards will soon be expected to pass exit exams aligned with more rigorous standards, and there’s a good chance many will fail to do so,“ said Shelby McIntosh, CEP research associate and author of the report. “While high schools should prepare all students for college or careers, policymakers must consider whether all students have had the opportunity to learn the content of these new, more rigorous standards before attaching such high stakes to the exams.”

A great challenge for states issuing high school exit exams is and will continue to be graduating the 10 percent to 30 percent of students who fail exit exams. Every state that issues an exit exam offers students multiple opportunities to pass the exam before completing twelfth grade. Many states offer other routes to graduation as well, including taking an alternate assessment, such as the ACT or SAT; permitting students to use portfolios of course work to demonstrate knowledge; offering exit exam waivers; and presenting an alternate certificate of graduation (that often is not a diploma equivalent). In addition, fourteen states fund remediation programs aimed at elevating students’ learning gains to help them pass their exit exam. Only three states provide an alternate path specifically designed for ELLs.

“Even with the introduction of student support services and alternate routes, the impacts of exit exams on historically lower-performing groups are not fully known and have yet to be fully addressed,” the report warns.

Despite the challenges inherent with issuing state exit exams, proponents continue to maintain that requiring students to pass an exit exam raises academic achievement and increases college and career readiness. On the flip side, opponents of state exit exams cite the lower high school graduation rates associated with these exams, claiming that it is unfair to deny a student a diploma based on a single test. Opponents also continue to be concerned about the lack of access many disadvantaged communities have to a quality education that is needed to prepare them for success on these exams.

Yet another piece in this complicated puzzle is the role that the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act plays. Many states continue to use exit exams, in part, as a “two birds with one stone” approach to assessing knowledge and meeting NCLB reporting requirements.

“Using state exit exams to comply with NCLB accountability requirements may also bring negative incentives,” the report cautions. “One well-documented concern of NCLB is that it puts pressure on states to focus on reading and math at the expense of other subjects, which could impact a state’s decision about which subjects to test as a graduation requirement.”

Many states using an exit exam to meet their NCLB requirements set different cut scores for each purpose; usually the passing score for graduation is lower than that of NCLB reporting.
Despite the myriad concerns and questions inherent with issuing exit exams, their use continues to grow among states. The impacts of the CCSS, NCLB, and attempts at matriculating lower-achieving students remain to be seen.

“Policymakers must ask themselves if these expectations, and the assessments used to measure progress toward them, should come with stakes so high they prevent some students from graduation from high school at all,” the report suggests.

State High School Exit Exams: A Policy in Transition is available at http://www.cep-dc.org/displayDocument.cfm?DocumentID=408.

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