High school exit exams have become a common fixture in American high school life. By 2006, 22 states had exit exams - and because larger states are more likely to have exams, approximately two-thirds of all high school students face exit exam requirements.
Proponents of exit exams often assert that these tests make the high school diploma more meaningful to employers. If this is the case, these policies should widen the gap in earnings and labor market outcomes between those who earn high school diplomas and those that don’t. Despite the popularity of these policies, few papers have examined this claim empirically.
In “State High School Exit Examinations and Postsecondary Labor Market Outcomes,” published in the most recent edition of Sociology of Education, Rob Warren, Eric Grodsky, and Jennifer Lee take up this question. Analyzing data from both the Census and the Current Population Survey, they found no evidence that state exit exams positively affect labor force status or earnings. Furthermore, they found no evidence that the effects of these policies vary by race or ethnicity, or by the level of difficulty of the exit exam.
In short, exit exams do nothing to increase the labor market value of the high school diploma. At the same time, other evidence suggests that exit exams (especially more difficult ones) are associated with lower public high school completion rates and higher rates of General Educational Development test taking (see Warren et al., High School Exit Examinations and State Level Completion and GED Rates, 1975-2002). Others find that exit exams increase inequality in rates of high school completion, and especially influence African-American students’ odds of completing high school. (See Dee and Jacob, Do High School Exit Exams Influence Educational Attainment or Labor Market Performance?)
Of course, it is possible that exit exams help improve the quality of education in lower grades, though I’ve seen little evidence on this point. Readers, what do you think? Do exit exams hurt more than they help?
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