Problems Persist on Exit Exams

K-12 Testing

The latest annual report on state high-school exit tests from the Center on Education Policy (CEP) concludes that initial pass rates are not improving. The gap between whites compared with blacks and Hispanics remains large, 20-30 percentage points in most states. Students with disabilities, whose first language is not English, or who are from low-income families also have low rates of success.


States Try Harder, But Gaps Persist points out that cumulative pass rates are ultimately more important than initial pass rates, but few states obtain good data on this. Moreover, many states ignore dropouts when calculating pass rates. Thus, Massachusetts can claim a 96% overall pass rate by excluding the more than 25 percent of entering high school students who have left school.


Other studies have found a positive association between exit exams and falling graduation rates. For example, the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) concluded that graduation rates remain low across the south, where graduation testing is common, and in some states have dropped markedly over the past decade. The average graduation rate in the 16 SREB states declined five percentage points while the US as a whole saw a two-point decline.


ELL Students
This year’s CEP report devotes special attention to the impact of exit exams on English language learners (ELLs). Nearly nine in ten ELLs live in states which will require students to pass an exit exam to graduate by 2012.


However, “Questions persist about whether exit exam scores are valid, reliable and fair indicators of what ELLs know and can do,” the report says, adding: It is “inappropriate to make high-stakes decisions about individual students…if they have not had the opportunity to learn the material being tested,” as many have not.


Also, tests often confound English language proficiency with academic achievement. For example, a math test administered in English may evaluate the student’s language mastery as much as mathematical knowledge. Given the great diversity of students within the ELL category, nuanced and even individualized approaches to teaching and testing are needed, the report concludes.



Data on State Tests
The report contains a rich array of data about state graduation testing programs. This past year, 19 states required students to pass a test to earn a diploma. Seven additional states are scheduled to add such exams in future years, with four of them starting in 2005-2006. In June, Oklahoma mandated an exit exam requirement, to take effect for the class of 2012. It is the only state to add such a requirement since 2000.
Only four states release all their exit exam questions each year (MA, NY, OH and TX), though a few occasionally release them, as Florida did in September. Thus, in only a few states can parents or the public obtain a clear sense of what students are expected to know and be able to do to earn a diploma.


Nine states reported having a waiver or appeal process to allow students to show they meet the standards if they do not pass the test. This summer, Tennessee also adopted a law authorizing its education department to implement an appeals process (see story p. 6). These processes vary greatly from state to state.


CEP projects that by 2012, three in five students across the nation will have to pass such tests, but four in five minority students will, as will three-quarters of those eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. With California adding its test this year, well over half the nation’s students, and a significantly larger proportion of minority students, now face exit exams.


In 2005, all the graduation exam states required students to pass language arts and math tests, while 10 of them required science, and of the 10, nine also required social studies. All states had multiple-choice items, 16 had a writing prompt, and 11 had some short answer items.
• see FairTest report on ELLs at
• The SREB graduation report was conducted by the Manhattan Institute