High School Exit Exams Not All That Tough, Study Concludes

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High school exit exams, which are required by nearly half the states, measure skills that students are usually taught in middle school or the first year of high school. That finding, according to a new report, should lay to rest concerns that the tests set too high a standard.

The report from the Washington-based Achieve Inc. examines in detail the mathematics and English/language arts tests given in six states that volunteered for the study: Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, and Texas.

The researchers found that students can pass the math tests by correctly answering questions that on average appeared in 7th and 8th grade curricula worldwide.

Similarly, students can pass the English tests by answering questions that most resemble those on an exam developed by the testing company ACT Inc. for 8th and 9th graders, the report says.

"We looked at how well these tests measure what matters to colleges and employers, and concluded that none of these tests is overly demanding," said Matthew Gandal, the director of the study and the vice president of Achieve, an academic-standards advocacy group founded by business leaders and governors in 1998.

He urged states to stick with their exams and even ratchet up standards over time. Some states have faced political pressure to postpone the tests or lower the scores required for passing.

The researchers looked at the skills covered by the tests and the cut scores states had set. They praised the states for making these tests more challenging than an earlier generation of exit exams. For example, states have added algebra and geometry to their math tests.

But the report also notes that most of the algebra points on the tests are actually awarded for correctly answering pre-algebra questions, and that most of the math points overall are linked to routine procedures or recall of facts.

On the English tests, half the points come from questions of basic comprehension and only 3 percent are awarded for critical reading, such as differentiating fact from opinion, the report says.

It cites New Jersey, Texas, and Massachusetts as having the most rigorous reading tests.

The tests that Achieve looked at "only measure a fraction of what is needed" for success in college and the workplace, said Mr. Gandal, adding that writing in particular is measured unevenly across the six states.

Florida and Ohio do not have writing on their exit exams. Maryland and Texas, meanwhile, rely heavily on multiple-choice items rather than on- demand writing.

Finding Balance

The report, which was released last week, concludes that "it is perfectly reasonable" to expect high school students to pass these exams.

In fact, the trends in Massachusetts suggest that students will rise to the challenge, according to the researchers. Statistics there show that the pass rate on the math exit test rose from 48 percent for the class of 1998, the first class required to take the test, to 95 percent for the class of 2003.

The researchers also say the graduation tests need to be strengthened over time with more challenging content and higher cut scores. They also recommend that states not rely just on these tests to assess skills, but develop other measures right up to the end of students’ high school careers.

States give the exams for the first time in either 10th or 11th grade so that students will have multiple chances to pass them, but that does not ensure they acquire 12th grade skills, the report says. It suggests that states could design tests for the senior year or develop end-of-course tests for material beyond the range of the exit exams.

Further, states need to work with school districts to find ways to test important skills that do not lend themselves to mass assessment, such as making oral presentations or doing research.

Commenting on the report, Henry Levin, a professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, said that he is all for higher standards, such as those represented by the exit exams, but worries that the tests could damage the futures of students who are poor and minority.

"The issue is how you balance these—the high standards and expectations with making sure you accommodate the late bloomers, those who don’t test well, and those who have been in situations outside of school that work against achievement," such as poverty and an unstable family, Mr. Levin said.

Vol. 23, Issue 40, Page 15

Published in Print: June 16, 2004, as High School Exit Exams Not All That Tough, Study Concludes
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