More States Require High School Exit Exams

By: - August 14, 2002 12:00 am

Passing your classes doesnt guarantee you a high school diploma anymore. In an effort to combat grade inflation and boost the value of a high school diploma, a growing number of states now require students pass an exit exam in order to graduate.

Eighteen states now require such tests and six more are going to phase them in over the next six years. Lawmakers hope to improve student performance with these tests, but education researchers said they fear it may lead to a higher drop out rate.

“As states institute rigorous exit exams, we all hope that they will lead to increased student achievement,” said Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, a non-profit public education advocacy organization in Washington, DC. “But there is also a risk that they will lead to more student dropouts.”

The Center released on Wednesday (Aug 14) a draft report on exit exams in a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Most students are passing the exit exams, although not on the first try, according to the draft report. Minority, disabled and poor students have the highest failure rates.

All 18 states with exit exams test math and English. And a growing number of these states also test science and social studies.

More than 90 percent of students pass the tests, but a high percentage of them fail on their first attempt, according to the report, “State High School Exit Exams: A Baseline Report.” Depending on the state, up to 70 percent of students fail the math test and up to 40 percent fail the English test first time around.

Research shows that the struggle to pass these tests may be causing students to drop out of high school. In Texas, students with relatively high grade point averages who fail their exit exams are much more likely to drop out of school than other students, according to a 1996 study cited in today’s report.

“If a failure to pass an exit exam on the first try does lead to higher dropout rates or other negative consequences, then African-American and Hispanics students will be much more severely effected,” the report concludes.

That’s because they have high rates of failing exams first time around. In Massachusetts, white students are almost twice as likely as Hispanic and black students to pass the state math exam on the first try.

Poor and disabled students have a hard time with the tests too. In Minnesota, 80 percent of all students pass the reading exit exam. But only 60 percent of poor students and 40 percent of special education students do.

Whether students who struggle to pass exams eventually graduate depends in part on whether their state provides money for tutoring and how it grades these exams.

The report shows that Massachusetts is among the states with mandatory exit exams that have lowered their passing scores to make graduating easier. Close to half allocate funding for additional instruction to students who fail.

More than a dozen states provide alternative routes to graduation to those students who fail exit exams multiple times, according to the report. At least six give these students a certificate of attendance that has a lower status than a diploma. Students in four states can graduate through a waiver or appeals process. And in New Jersey, students can take a special alternative testing assessment.

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