Do High School Exit Exams Really Work?

With high school exit testing, a student can't earn a high school diploma without passing a graduation exam or set of exams. In short, if you don't pass the test, you don't graduate. However, if you fail the test, you're given access to tutoring (sometimes for free) and allowed to take the test again to earn your diploma.

A long-held belief is that a good education is the foundation of continued prosperity and success. After all, without a good education, one can't compete in the growing global market. But how do we find out how well our education system is working? And how do we identify where the system needs help? One solution is high school exit testing, and about half of the states are trying it.

High school exit exams have always been controversial. Here are some of the problems noted by people who oppose the exams.

What are teachers teaching?

Some have argued that, because a high school exit exam is so important for graduation, teachers will teach to the test at the expense of a well-rounded education. Teachers will make classroom choices based on what will help their students pass the exam and not on what they believe the student ought to learn.

A corollary to this argument is that subjects that aren't tested on the exit exam are given diminished focus (and often diminished funding) in the school. Indeed, in states that have instituted high school exit exams, teachers in arts, music, and foreign languages have often complained that their funding has fallen off, citing the focus on exit exams as a contributing factor.

Are high school exit exams discriminatory?

Studies have shown that failure rates on high school exit exams can fall along racial and socioeconomic lines. For example, in 2009, researchers at the Institute for Research on Education Policy and Practice published a study called "Effects of the California High School Exit Exam on Student Persistence, Achievement, and Graduation." In this study, they examined data from before and after implementation of the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) and found that, among the bottom 25 percent of students, the CAHSEE had no effect on graduation rates of whites, but rates were 15 percentage points lower for Hispanic students, 17 points lower for Asian students, and 19 points lower for Black students, even though such a disparity wasn't evident in other, non-high-stakes testing.

Are exit exams useful?

One of the arguments for high school exit exams is they that validate high school diplomas in the real world, giving employers an unbiased signal that the diploma-holder has achieved a certain level of academic knowledge.

In the study noted above, however, researchers also concluded that the CAHSEE has not improved the overall achievement of California students; people who earned a diploma after initiation of the CAHSEE requirement were no more well-qualified than those who graduated earlier.

Given the finding that failure rates were disproportionately higher among minorities, even though such disparity was not apparent for other testing, this means that a post-CAHSEE diploma does not actually give employers an unbiased view of a person's academic achievement.

This leads to the argument that the CAHSEE in particular, and high school exit exams in general, don't actually measure a student's academic abilities as well as other, existing tests do. And face it: from mid-terms and final exams to the SAT and ACT to a host of proficiency exams, a student's progress is constantly tested.

An alternative to high school exit testing, then, is to gauge a student's worthiness to graduate on other, pre-existing exams — not just classroom testing, as in the past, but also on larger achievement and assessment tests, such as the SAT. This option has recently become more attractive. In fact, in 2007, the Texas legislature — a forerunner in high-stakes high school graduation testing — began phasing out its high school graduation exam requirement in favor of using the results of other pre-existing tests to gauge achievement.