Education Funding

Exit Exams Bringing Unexpected Burdens, Policy Group Reports

By Sean Cavanagh — September 03, 2003 3 min read
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High school exit exams have sparked improvements in many areas of curriculum and instruction, but they also have heaped new, hidden financial burdens on states that have put them in place, a study has found.

“State High School Exit Exams: Put to the Test,” is available from the Center on Education Policy . (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The report by the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based organization that advocates for public education, concludes that tests required for high school graduation are encouraging teachers to better align classwork to meet state standards.

In addition, exit exams are prompting teachers to focus on previously neglected subjects and classroom topics, and they boost remedial work for pupils who are at risk of failing the tests.

Yet many educators fear that high-stakes tests are “squeezing out” classroom work that isn’t a part of the exit exams and forcing teachers to sacrifice depth in their instruction, according to the Aug. 13 report, “State High School Exams: Put to the Test.”

“The overriding message is, American schools are becoming more demanding, and American high schools are becoming more demanding—and they ought to be,” said Jack Jennings, the center’s director. "[But] we cannot just impose things on schools without understanding there are cost implications and doing other things to make sure they succeed.”

Exit exams are now required of students in 19 states, covering 52 percent of the nation’s public school population and 55 percent of minority students in public schools, the report says. Five more states are scheduled to phase in the tests over the next five years, which means that 70 percent of all public school students will face exit exams by 2008 if they want to earn diplomas.

Yet exit exams, often administered beginning in the 10th grade, also carry heavy financial costs, the report says. States are accustomed to the expense of administering the tests and of offering remedial work to students who score poorly. But they also face less obvious costs in areas such as professional development for teachers and advance work in helping students pass.

Local Burden

The Center on Education Policy contracted with Augenblick & Myers, a Denver firm specializing in school finance, to study exit exam costs and other issues. The research team focused on Indiana, but it used methodology that could provide cost estimates for other states, the report says.

The study found that Indiana’s exit test, the Graduation Qualifying Exam, costs the state $442 million a year, or $444 per student. That amount equals 5.5 percent of the $8.1 billion the state spent on K-12 education in fiscal 2001-02. The overwhelming amount of the per- student costs—$442 out of the $444—is paid at the local rather than the state level, the report says.

“Several states are covering only a small portion of the excess local costs of implementing exit exams,” it says, “and have not made provision to help with the even greater future costs.”

Wes Bruce, Indiana’s assistant superintendent of assessment, research, and information technology, did not disagree with the report’s assertion that states face many unexpected costs in administering graduation tests. But he questioned the estimates of how little his state was contributing to paying for its exams.

“I think that [the estimate of local district’s share] is way, way high,” said Mr. Bruce.

He also questioned the study’s projections of future spending on exit exams in his state, saying existing dollars could cover many of those costs. And he said Indiana officials could find savings in their existing testing program, as it grows and develops.

On another topic, the report cites a “moderate degree of evidence” that state exit exams are associated with higher dropout rates, but it says the data are inconclusive. The dropout rate rose in eight states and decreased in five after exit exams were implemented, while graduation rates increased in five states and decreased in 10, the study found.

The authors also found that passing rates of poor students, minority students, and those with disabilities are lower on average than for white students and those without disabilities.

Matt Gandal, the executive vice president of Achieve, applauded the study but said he wished it had explored differences in the rigor of various state tests, and whether they were challenging students in any meaningful way.

“It shouldn’t only be about exiting the K-12 system; it should be about whether students are prepared for higher education, or the job market,” said Mr. Gandal, whose Washington-based organization, encourages states to raise academic standards.

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