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Published in Print: January 9, 2002, as Two New Projects to Examine Quality, Impact of Exit Exams

Two New Projects to Examine Quality, Impact of Exit Exams

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Two new projects have been launched to examine the quality of high school exit exams and their effects on students.

The American Diploma Project, a joint venture by four national education groups and five states, will help participating states align their high school tests in reading, writing, and mathematics with the skills students need for college and high-performance workplaces.

The organizers plan by this spring to produce "gap analyses" of how well secondary school tests and standards in the five states—Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Texas—line up with college-admissions and -placement tests and the demands of employers.

In a separate venture, the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, an advocacy organization for public schools, has received $400,000 from the Ford Foundation to monitor the development and use of high school exit exams and their impact on students. Leaders of the project, which is estimated to cost some $1.15 million over three years, plan to produce annual reports on the status of high school exit exams, including what is known about their effects on students' course-taking patterns, graduation and college-admissions rates, and participation in extracurricular activities.

"The institution of high school exit exams is a very important development in American education," said Jack Jennings, the director of the center. "It brings us into line with most other industrialized countries, and it will cause great changes in high school curriculum. In effect, it's the backdoor way to reform high schools."

Searching for Consensus

Seventeen states require students to pass exit or end-of-course exams to receive a high school diploma, and seven more plan to do so in the future.

Jack Jennings

But as states have moved to institute more rigorous academic standards and tests, they have encountered numerous challenges, including questions about whether they have set their expectations appropriately, and whether the tests will cause more students to drop out of school. Some students and parents in Massachusetts, Michigan, and New York have boycotted the exams.

The American Diploma Project, which is supported with a $2.4 million, two-year grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, based in Menlo Park, Calif., is designed to strengthen states' ongoing standards-based efforts. The four sponsoring organizations—Achieve, the Education Trust, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, and the National Alliance of Business—have been longtime supporters of raising academic expectations.

The first phase of the project will examine gaps between existing high school exams and college-admissions and -placement tests in each state. National tests such as the SAT and the ACT will also be included in the analyses.

At the same time, the project will try to compare real work samples and the expectations of frontline managers in high-performance companies against the content of states' academic standards, with the aim of examining gaps in those areas as well.

In addition, lawyers from the Washington-based law firm of Nixon Peabody will analyze the legal questions that could arise in using high school tests for graduation, college admissions and placement, and hiring decisions.

Fifteen states applied to take part in the two-year American Diploma Project. Business and higher education leaders in the five that were chosen have committed to using standards-based test data for college-admissions and employment purposes.

"If you cannot persuade a 16-year-old on a Thursday night that meeting the standard is going to matter in the real world, he's not likely to stay home and study his chemistry," Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Fordham Foundation, said at a briefing held last month in Washington to announce the project.

Based on the initial findings, panels of representatives from K-12 and higher education, business, policy interests, the military, and citizens' groups in each state will determine whether they need to refine their existing standards and tests, and make plans to use them in admissions and hiring.

In the second year of the project, representatives from across the partner states will see if they can agree on common benchmarks that all high school graduates should meet in reading, writing, and math. A national panel of experts will review those findings.

Project organizers also will encourage other states to use the benchmarks. The hope is that through a voluntary process, the project can reach a consensus on the literacy and numeracy skills that all high school students need that, so far, has proved elusive.

"To have these constituencies come together I think is going to be great for everybody," said Ruth Wattenberg, the director of education issues for the American Federation of Teachers.

'A Unique Role'

Meanwhile, the Center on Education Policy hopes to provide a nonpartisan, independent evaluation of how such high school exams are working in practice.

Chester E. Finn Jr.

"We have no constituency base. We are not tied to the educational organizations or the business community," said Mr. Jennings, whose group gets almost all of its money from charitable foundations. "This puts us in a unique role to look at these exit exams."

The center plans to review the content of exit exams in each state, analyze test results, and summarize existing research on how the exams affect students' lives both in and out of school.

"Are teachers teaching differently?" Mr. Jennings said. "Are schools providing supplemental services for kids that aren't doing well? Are kids working less in terms of outside employment?"

At the outset, he said, the group will probably pull together existing information, but in the long run, it hopes to conduct some of its own research on such issues. Its first report on the state of high school exit exams is slated for release in the winter of next year.

Vol. 21, Issue 16, Page 10

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