CEP Reports on Exit Exams

K-12 Testing

The Center on Education Policy’s (CEP) latest report on the consequences of high-school graduation tests, examining one district each in Virginia and Maryland, provides important evidence on the tests’ extensive educational harm. How Have High School Exit Exams Changed Our Schools relied on interviews and focus groups with students, teachers and administrators. 


Virginia has used its Standards of Learning (SOL) tests as a graduation requirement starting with the class of 2004. Students must pass two tests in English and any four of ten exams in math, science and history/social science. While the state claims that about 95 percent of the class of 2004 passed, independent studies show Virginia’s real graduation rate was around 70 percent.


The tests are all multiple-choice, other than one write-to-a-prompt assessment. According to the CEP report, “many” educators excoriated the exams on multiple grounds, focusing on unfairness, narrowing the curriculum, and wasting lots of time on test prep. Overall, “positive statements [about the SOLs] were limited and many teachers expressed only concerns.”


One student summed up curriculum concerns by saying, “Why do we learn it? Because it’s on the SOL. Why do we teach it? Because it’s on the SOL.”


Defenders of the tests often ask what’s wrong with teaching to the test. Virginia students and educators repeatedly pointed out that the SOLs are not an adequate measure of student learning, and, by dominating the curriculum, they reduce teaching and learning to what can be measured by fact-focused multiple-choice items. Students explained that they had to “memorize facts all the time.”


“We are not coming up with critical thinkers anymore,” said one teacher. Another noted, “In science and social studies, we are teaching minutiae.”


Teachers said they do teach to the test, crafting their own exams to mimic the SOLs. They spend less time on labs and hands-on instruction. “We don’t do proofs in geometry anymore because they are not on the test,” explained a math teacher.


Teachers indicated they were forced to choose between two damaging options – undermining the curriculum or not helping students pass the exams. Given that choice, they would help their students pass.


Teachers reported leaving some students behind in order to maintain the pace dictated by the exams. Some students noted “friends who had dropped out at least partly due to the SOLs.”


Overall, school culture and climate were reported to have worsened.


Administrators were concerned about the tests’ bureaucratic demands, while teachers noted they had to document everything they did to prove they were properly focused on the tests. Teachers reported many weeks of test-prep time (in addition to changes made during regular instruction), and that once the tests were over, students were so burnt out that little learning occurred for the rest of the year.


Educators in the Maryland district viewed the tests as less of an external imposition, having been more involved in their development than teachers were in Virginia. Many tests include short and long open-response items, not just multiple-choice. Perhaps most critically, they are not yet required for graduation and are only this year beginning to be used for accountability under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. Thus, the negative effects detailed in Virginia may yet surface.


Whether the use of constructed-response items will make a longer-term difference remains to be seen. Both Massachusetts and New York use similar exams, but educators in both states have criticized the quality of the tests and their harmful impact on teaching and learning, as well as the unfairness of making high-stakes decisions based solely on test scores.


Maryland educators did note significant problems, particularly in biology and social studies, which were crammed with too much detail.


The CEP has released several reports on NCLB. Those reports rely almost entirely on the reporting of administrators charged with implementing the law. While that approach sheds light on some issues, it is a limited and potentially misleading perspective on the impact of the law. As Julie Woestehoff of Parents United for Responsible Education observed about Chicago, city officials cited in the CEP report have presented a very distorted view of what is happening.