College & Workforce Readiness

Study Says to States: Don’t Rush; Provide Support on Exit Exams

By Sean Cavanagh — September 04, 2002 3 min read

As the nationwide popularity of high school exit exams continues to climb, a recent report contends that states have been lax in devoting money and services to students most at risk of failing the tests.

The report by the Center on Education Policy recommends that states delay for several years the consequences of scoring poorly on the tests, giving teachers time to adjust curricula and classroom methods to help students—particularly minority students—master the material on the tests. If states rush to attach high stakes, the report says, they risk seeing more students drop out of school.

Titled “State High School Exit Exams: Pass or Fail?” and issued last month, the study also concludes that black and Hispanic students are much more likely to fail the exit tests.

“To summarize this report, it’s ‘proceed with caution,’ it’s a yellow light,” said Jack Jennings, the director of the center, a Washington-based organization that advocates improved public school education. “It’s easier to demand rigor from students than to provide money to attain that rigor.”

Read the report, “State High School Exit Exams: A Baseline Report,” from the Center on Education Policy.

Eighteen states require students to pass such exams to graduate from high school. An additional six states are phasing in the exams, but are not currently denying diplomas if students don’t pass. The report warns that failures on the exams may lead more students to drop out, though it does not provide data showing a definite link between doing poorly on such tests and quitting school, Mr. Jennings acknowledged.

The percentage of students who don’t pass exit exams on their first attempt differs greatly from state to state. Between 9 percent and 69 percent fail mathematics tests, and between 5 percent and 42 percent flunk the English, or language arts, sections, according to the study. The broad disparities in failure rates, the center says, stem from both the varying levels of difficulty on the tests and how much time students and teachers have had to adjust to the tests since individual states adopted them.

In Indiana, 65 percent of students who took exit exams in the spring of 2001 passed the math portion of the test the first time they took it, the study found. But only 31 percent of black students and 46 percent of Hispanic students passed on the first try. And in Massachusetts, while 82 percent of all students in spring 2001 passed the English portion of the exam, only 59 percent of black students and 51 percent of Hispanics passed, according to the report.

No Waiting

Billie J. Orr, the president of the Washington-based Education Leaders Council, a group of state and local education officials, agreed that states needed to evaluate the results of graduation tests closely. But she disagreed with the Center on Education Policy’s conclusion that many states had not given students the resources needed for success. She also challenged the report’s argument that the tests should be implemented more slowly.

“I’m a little concerned about ‘phased in over several years,’” said Ms. Orr, quoting from the report. Her organization is a strong backer of standardized tests and helps state governments create and refine them. “It’s important that we move quickly and fairly.”

The center’s report says states should focus on providing students with remedial coursework, such as tutoring, summer school, and after-school programs.

Another supporter of exit exams, Matthew D. Gandal, a vice president of Achieve, a national group founded by governors and business leaders, said it is unfair to point to lower minority scores on exit exams as proof that the tests are putting those students at risk. If anything, the lower scores show the need for testing at earlier grade levels, so students who need extra help can be identified in time, said Mr. Gandal, whose organization is based in Washington.

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