Graduation Test Use Declines; Common Core Testing Raises New Issues

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner, October 2012

North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and New Mexico are backing off from exit exams, says a new report from the Center on Educational Policy (CEP). However, other jurisdictions are expanding the numbers of mandated tests and making them more difficult to pass. The looming multi-state exams based on the Common Core State Standards (CC) could raise graduation hurdles even higher. Already tens of thousands of students who have met all other high school graduation requirements are denied diplomas each year based solely on their scores on a state standardized test. This practice disproportionately hurts the nation’s most vulnerable students: minority, low-income, English language learners, and students with disabilities.

Budget cuts have led some states to delay introducing new tests. Fiscal pressures have also led to fewer retake and remediation options. Overall, the number of states with exit exams is shrinking for the first time in years. Currently about 70% of U.S. students must pass a graduation test to earn a diploma. However, more than 80% of Latinos and English language learners are subject to them.

The National Academy of Sciences Board on Testing and Accountability (BOTA) reviewed the best research on exit exams. It concluded these tests increase the dropout rate but do not improve readiness for college or employment. CEP also notes that students who fail initial attempts at the graduation test are often denied access to desired courses because they must take exit exam remediation.

Most states have joined one of two consortia creating exams based on the Common Core State Standards, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). (See FairTest’s new fact sheet on the CC tests).  Thus far, 13 states have said they will use CC tests as high school exit exams. Several others plan to align new tests with the CC standards but have not said they will use the consortium exams. The two consortia deny any responsibility for the predictable negative consequences, claiming that the use of their tests as an exit hurdle is a state’s choice.

The “proficient” level for consortia tests will be similar to that on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). “Proficient” supposedly indicates “college and career readiness.” States may set the graduation bar at a lower point, but CEP reports that many states plan to impose the tougher requirement.  Using the NAEP “proficient” or even its “basic” level would lead to far more failures than on current state tests.

Nine states now use end of course exams (EOC) in place of single graduation tests. Several more states will add them in the next few years. For example, Texas and Florida are phasing in EOCs. Most of these states test in just a few subjects. But the rapid proliferation of EOCs in Texas, which is introducing a dozen, helped fuel the growing resistance to high stakes testing (see article this issue).

In some states, EOC’s are treated more like final exams, counting for 15% to 25% of a student’s course grade, but no one has to pass a particular test to graduate. Alabama and Georgia are joining three other states in choosing this option.

- CEP report:
- Common Core:  
- BOTA report: ; see also the 2007 BOTA report on graduation tests: