Wyoming Steers Clear of Exit Exams

K-12 Testing

Wyoming's high school class of 2006 was the first to graduate under a new set of standards-based graduation requirements that represent an intriguing alternative to exit exams. Rather than rely primarily on test scores, Wyoming bases graduation decisions on a student's "body of evidence," a multiple measures approach.


Exit exam proponents often cite the need to ensure that a high school diploma "means something," that schools don't simply pass along students who are unprepared for higher education or work. When Wyoming legislators and educators set out to reform their high school graduation process in the late 1990s, they too wanted their students' diplomas to have meaning. But they recognized that exit exams offer no such assurance and were acutely aware of high-stakes testing's negative consequences.


Wyoming set out to design a system that would ensure every student had a real opportunity to learn all the state standards, respect the state's tradition of local control, avoid exit exams' negative consequences and focus on using assessment to improve classroom learning. In addition, the state was willing to allow enough time to implement a positive program.


The Wyoming Department of Education (DOE) assessment handbook says: "There are many legitimate reasons for not using a single test to certify students for graduation, and there is no defensible educational reason for doing so. Following the recommendations of several major research organizations, we have chosen to rely on this locally determined set of data to base these important decisions. Most importantly, however, we believe that implementing locally-designed assessment systems has the potential of leading powerful changes in instruction and learning in Wyoming's classrooms."


According to John Durkee, director of assessment at the Wyoming DOE, the goal of the graduation system design was that all students have the opportunity to learn all nine of the state's content standards: reading/language arts; social studies; mathematics; science; fine arts and performing arts; physical education; health and safety; career/vocational education; foreign cultures and languages. A major issue was, "are all kids who are graduating capable of skills we say they are?" Durkee said. Standardized tests cannot answer that question, he added. Speaking as a former speech and debate coach, Durkee said, "How are you going to show they have speaking skills with a high stakes test?"


Another reason Wyoming avoided the exit exam route was fairness: Policy-makers did not want a single test to disqualify kids from graduating, Durkee said. They determined they needed to use multiple factors to effectively measure whether students were learning all the standards, and so that each child could be tested in modes that best match her or his learning style.


With compelling evidence that exit exams are linked to lower graduation rates, narrowed curricula, and corruption of teaching and learning (including cheating), Wyoming turned to the "Body of Evidence" system of determining readiness to graduate. The Body of Evidence is a collection of a student's work proving understanding of concepts and the ability to perform certain required skills.


Each local district designs its own system, but all must meet specified criteria:

  • Provide evidence of student achievement directly related to the Wyoming state standards.
  • Give students multiple opportunities and multiple ways (i.e., not just more chances to take the same tests) to demonstrate their knowledge and skills relating to the standards.
  • Be fair to all students, including those with disabilities or who are learning English, and provide accommodations.
  • Allow education professionals to decide what's "good enough" in a fair and reasonable way.
  • Create assessments that are similar across schools and classrooms within the same school district both within a given year and across years.
  • Answer these two questions: Does the student know enough to graduate? And does the evidence support the answer?

In keeping with the emphasis on locally designed approaches, Wyoming allows four different ways for a district to design a Body of Evidence, and districts can choose the way or combination of ways that best suits their needs. Regardless of the chosen approach, district Body of Evidence plans must be submitted to the state DOE for peer review.


The designers of the Body of Evidence system saw that its credibility would be enhanced by involving various stakeholders, including teachers, parents and representatives from the business community, in discussion and even the design of the system. What do teachers think of it now? Kathy Scheurman, professional issues director for the Wyoming Education Association, says that involving educators in developing the system yielded higher quality assessments. "Teachers and curriculum directors were writing assessments," Scheurman said. "They had so much input that they really owned what they were doing and because they had a lot of input, they were tougher than a written test would be, because they're good at what they do and they expect the kids to be good."


Wyoming high school English teacher Mary Odenbach also sees benefits to the Body of Evidence approach. "As a teacher, I value using the Body of Evidence Consortium Activities for several reasons but the main one is that these assessments have focused my teaching. I went from jumping from topic to topic, trying to cover as much material as I could, to purposefully teaching specific, critical knowledge."


How are Wyoming students faring? The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education ranks Wyoming as one of the top 13 states in the gains made over the last decade in preparing its students for college. College-going rates have increased from 54% in 1998, below the national average, to 59% in 2004, above the national average of 55.7%. The Wyoming high school graduation rate for 2004-05 reached a ten-year high of 81.45%, up from 79.17% in 2003-04.


Wyoming still uses a regular standardized testing system for NCLB. Perhaps the knowledge gained from the Body of Evidence graduation requirement will enable the state to consider developing an entire statewide system based on local measures, as Nebraska has done.