The number of states requiring students to pass an exam to receive a high school diploma continues to fall, a sign that attitudes towards the once-popular general competency exams have shifted dramatically.
Only eight states still mandate exit exams, according to an analysis released this month by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, which tracks K-12, university, and employment test policies.
Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, Virginia, and Wyoming still require students to pass these exams to graduate. That’s down from 13 states in 2019, according to an Education Week review.
These tests grew in popularity with the rise of the accountability and standards-based reform movements in the early 2000s. As recently as 2014, about half of all states required students to pass these exams to graduate.
Supporters of the exams said they were necessary to hold students and schools to basic academic standards. But opponents claimed that they pushed students to drop out who would have otherwise received diplomas—and they noted that Black and Latino students and students from low-income families were less likely to pass these tests than their peers.
These patterns led to concerns about equity, likely one of the reasons that states have moved away from these tests over the past decade, said John Papay, an associate professor of education at Brown University who studies high-stakes testing.
The pandemic also played a role. New Mexico, for instance, won’t require a passing grade on its standardized test for high school students on track to graduate in 2024. The state’s Education Secretary, Kurt Steinhaus, cited the pandemic as a reason for the change, saying in a statement that “this decision will afford our schools time to focus on quality instruction and more meaningful, balanced assessment practices—both of which are necessary for acceleration.”
School disruptions raise ethical questions about how to support and assess students with deep gaps in their knowledge and skills, said Ellen Forte, the CEO and chief scientist at edCount, a consulting group. “We have not been able to fill in those blanks, so we do we do about that?” she asked.
Are exit exams effective? What the research says
Exit exams are designed to hold schools and students accountable—to ensure students learn what the state says they’re supposed to learn in high school and are prepared for what’s next. But there’s little evidence that they achieve this goal.
Newer research suggests that whether students pass or fail these tests can have big consequences—even for high schoolers who are equally academically qualified.
In a 2022 study, Papay and his colleagues analyzed high school graduation rates in Massachusetts, comparing students who had just missed the cutoff score for passing the state’s exit exam in math to students who had just cleared it. These groups of kids were roughly similar in terms of their academic ability—their scores on the test only differed by a fraction.
Among students from low-income families, barely passing the test increased the probability that they would graduate high school, compared to their peers who just missed the cutoff. The results underscore the importance of supporting students who fail the test, Papay said.
“In Massachusetts, there’s been a lot of attention to, how do we provide opportunities through appeal or through portfolio review for students who haven’t passed the test?” he said. “We’re seeing that students who satisfy those appeals are somewhat similar to students who barely passed the test the first time.”
Other research suggests that the type of exit exam matters. A 2019 study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning group, found that end-of-course tests—which assess students’ knowledge in a particular subject rather than general competency—are associated with a small increase in graduation rates. (This finding held for end-of-course tests in math, English/language arts, and social studies, though not in science.)
These end-of-course tests have become more popular than general competency exit exams, said Forte, a trend she thinks is a positive development.
How to assess students at the end of their K-12 education depends on “the question you’re trying to answer,” she said. How well is the school system supporting students? Do future graduates have the skills they need for college and careers? These are different questions that likely require different kinds of measurement, she said.