College & Workforce Readiness

Exit Exams Found to Depress H.S. Graduation Rates

June 20, 2006 2 min read

A study using more than 25 years of data suggests that state exit exams—especially the more challenging ones—are leading to lower high school graduation rates. The high-stakes tests are also spurring more students to pursue a General Educational Development, or GED, credential, the study finds.

The new analysis by a sociology professor and two graduate students was expected to be published in the June 21 issue of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, a peer-reviewed journal put out by the Washington-based American Educational Research Association.

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Nearly half of all states are requiring students in the class of 2006 to pass a high school exit examination to graduate, the study notes. Typically, students get multiple chances to pass, starting in 9th grade.

“The most important finding is that exit exams reduce the rate at which public school kids get a diploma,” said John Robert Warren, a co-author of the report and an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

He added, “As poverty rates go up, that effect is heightened, and as states become more diverse, that effect is heightened.”

Across all states studied, the effect of the exit exams was to decrease the graduation rate by 0.77 percent, according to the study, titled “High School Exit Examinations and State-Level Completion and GED Rates, 1975-2002.” That effect was amplified to 2.1 percent in states with exams deemed “more difficult.”

The study emphasizes that a lot of students are behind those statistics.

The results “suggest that many thousands of students fail to graduate from high school each year because of state [exit exam] policies, and only a small percentage of those students are likely overcoming the situation by obtaining a GED instead,” the researchers write.

Costs and Benefits

The report concedes that, theoretically, it should not be surprising that exit exams would lead to lower rates of high school completion. But it also offers reasons why that might not happen: Many of the tests are quite easy, for instance, and struggling students are to receive additional support.

Previous research on the issue is mixed, Mr. Warren said.

While some other studies have found no statistically significant effect on dropout rates, he suggested that most of those results “aren’t credible for a variety of reasons” having to do with their methods. Mr. Warren noted that the new research contradicts an analysis he issued last year that found no effect from exit exams.

The use of state-mandated exit exams for high schoolers has grown considerably over time, often in the face of opposition. For instance, the California exam is facing a legal challenge. (“Latest Decision Keeps Calif. Exit-Exam Law as Graduations Near,” June 7, 2006.)

Jay P. Greene, an education professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville who has studied the issues surrounding exit exams, described the paper as “well done” but emphasized that the actual impact on graduation rates documented across the board in the study was less than 1 percentage point.

“That’s a very small effect,” he said, adding that even the 2.1 percent figure for more difficult exams was “still quite small for a difficult test.”

Mr. Greene noted that other research, cited in Mr. Warren’s study, finds positive academic outcomes from exit exams.

“We’re trying to balance maximizing the [graduation] rate with ensuring the integrity of the diploma,” he said. “The paper … [offers] a caution that there may be a price and that we should think about whether we’re getting the academic benefits that exceed the price.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2006 edition of Education Week as Exit Exams Found to Depress H.S. Graduation Rates

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