Number of Graduation Exams Required by States Levels Off

By Lynn Olson — August 29, 2006 4 min read
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Growth in the number of states requiring students to pass an exit exam to earn a high school diploma has stalled, a report by the Center on Education Policy says.

No state legislature in 2006 adopted a new requirement that students pass an exit exam, according to the Washington-based organization, which released its fifth annual report on the topic at a press conference here Aug. 16. Twenty-two states require graduation exams, and three other states are phasing in such requirements, the report notes.

The report, “State High School Exit Exams: A Challenging Year,” is available from the Center on Education Policy. Also, view more CEP reports on high school exit exams.

“It is likely that the stalled growth in the use of exit exams is in part due to the fact that other states are waiting to see how legal and political battles play out before making their own decisions,” said Jack Jennings, the president and chief executive officer of the center, which conducts policy studies in support of public education.

Both Arizona and California began withholding diplomas from students who did not pass state exit exams this year, but only after facing significant legal challenges.

“So it may be a brief hesitation, or it may be a turning point,” said Mr. Jennings. “We don’t know for sure.”

Utah policymakers decided not to withhold diplomas in 2006 as previously planned, opting instead to note on students’ diplomas whether or not they had passed the state test.

Idaho was the only state that began withholding diplomas based on exit exams in 2006 with minimum controversy. The report speculates that the general acceptance of the policy there may be because Idaho has several alternate routes for meeting the exam requirements and has set its passing score for 2006 at what state officials consider to be only an 8th grade level of performance. The state is set to raise its passing scores to a 10th grade level in 2008.

Expanding Options

Despite the slowdown, the report points out that 22 states required students to pass an exam to receive a high school diploma this past school year. Three additional states—Maryland, Oklahoma, and Washington—are phasing in such a requirement.

By 2012, the report estimates, exit exams will affect more than seven in 10 of the nation’s public high school students, and more than eight in 10 minority high school students.


In six years, more than seven in 10 of the nation’s public high school students will face exit exams as a condition for earning high school diplomas.


SOURCE: Center on Education Policy; Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

Meanwhile, a number of states are expanding options for students to meet the testing requirements for a diploma.

Over the past year, the study found, at least three states—Arizona, Washington, and Maryland—have provided new options for students to obtain a diploma even if they do not pass the tests. Such options include substituting scores on other tests such as the SAT or ACT college-admissions exam, passing a state-developed alternative assessment, pursuing a waiver or appeals process, receiving credit toward exam scores for satisfactory course grades, providing other evidence of competence, or doing some combination of the above.

In addition, the report says, eight states have either delayed exit-exam requirements for students with disabilities or exempted those students from having to pass the exams, though less flexibility is available for English-language learners. Both groups typically pass the tests at lower rates than their other peers.

“With few exceptions, states have moved to greater flexibility in their exit-exam policies,” said Mr. Jennings. “The question we have is how many pathways can there be without watering down the requirement that students must pass these exams to get a high school diploma.”

Although research is not conclusive, new studies suggest that exit exams may have a slightly negative effect on graduation rates, according to the report. But the exams do not seem to rate very high on the list of factors influencing a student’s decision to drop out, it adds.

There is also evidence that the tests may be influencing curricula. In a survey of the 25 states that have or are phasing in such exams, the center found, state education officials reported that students were being encouraged to take more courses in tested subjects, including reading, writing, science, and, particularly, mathematics.The report found that spending on remedial programs for students tends to increase in states where the exam requirements are new and controversial. (“State Urgency Over Exit Tests Fades With Time,” June 21, 2006.)

According to the CEP report, California has nearly tripled its spending on remediation during the past year, from $20 million to more than $57 million, and Washington state plans to spend more than $28 million on remedial efforts in 2006-07, in advance of its plan to begin withholding diplomas in 2008. But states where exit-exam requirements have been in place for several years, such as Indiana and Massachusetts, have recently reduced spending for remediation.

States also are moving to add more subjects to their high school graduation tests, beyond English and math. The report says that by 2012, 19 states will test in science, up from 11 now, and 13 will test in social studies, up from nine.

A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2006 edition of Education Week as Number of Graduation Exams Required by States Levels Off


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