College & Workforce Readiness

Are End-of-Course Exams an Alternative to Exit Exams? Maybe

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 27, 2019 2 min read
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Testing students at the end of some high school courses could provide a way to measure student and school progress without reducing graduation rates, according to a new report.

A study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank, suggests states’ use of end-of-course exams has slowed in recent years, but their use in some core classes is linked to higher graduation rates.

Adam Tyner, an associate director for research at Fordham, and Matthew Larsen, an assistant professor of economics at Lafayette College, looked at trends in states using end-of-course exams—both for accountability and otherwise—since 1996. The researchers found their use increased steadily since the 1990s, but began to decline in the wake of a broader movement for less testing. Only a dozen states base graduation on a final exit exam at the end of high school, for example, but more than half of states still include at least one end-of-course exam for student or school accountability:

One reason end-of-course exams might have retained more popularity than exit exams is they have been seen as less of a gatekeeper to students earning a high school diploma. Back in 2017, the U.S. Department of Education found that a majority of the schools studied used the tests as part of their dropout-prevention initiatives, and they were the most common type of “competency based” accountability. Rural and urban schools were more likely than suburban schools to use end-of-course exams, the Education Department found.

Tyner and Larsen found the use of end-of-course tests was associated with slightly better graduation rates:

But the subject seems to make a difference, particularly for black and Hispanic students. The researchers found having an end-of-course exam in English was associated with a slight boost in graduation rates, while a science exam was associated with lower graduation rates for these students.

The study also found end-of-course tests didn’t predict students’ college entrance exam scores, though prior studies have found students’ overall grades—to which end-of-course tests contribute—may be a better predictor of students’ long-term achievement and persistence in college.

“Raising graduation rates remains a key goal for high schools in most states, and when we examine the effects of [end-of-course tests] on these rates, we find no negative effects—and in some cases, positive ones,” the researchers concluded. “In other words, the key argument against exit exams—that they depress graduation rates—does not hold” for end-of-course tests.

Charts Source: Thomas B. Fordham Institute

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.

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