In 2001, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. The purpose of NCLB is to close the achievement gap between minority and underprivileged students and their peers.
Although most NCLB legislation targets elementary schools, it does affect high schools in a number of ways. As it pertains to high schools, NCLB requires following:
States must set annual achievement objectives. These objectives include annually rising expectations that ensure that all students are proficient in math and reading by the end of the 2013-2014 school year. If a school doesn't meet its objectives for two consecutive years, school officials must develop a two-year plan to turn the school around, and students must be offered the option to transfer to another school in the district. Five consecutive years of missing the objectives requires plans for a complete restructuring of the school, which may include replacing all or most of the school staff or turning school operations over to the state or to a private company that has proven its effectiveness.
Objectives must take into account different socioeconomic factors. In determining a high school's achievement objectives, the state must include separate annual goals for low-income students, ethnic and racial minority students, students with disabilities, and students with limited English language abilities. The needs of students who struggle should not be buried under a school's high overall achievement.
High schools are accountable for graduation rates. Graduation rates are part of a school's yearly objectives. Under NCLB laws, schools can no longer include alternative diplomas and GED certifications in the overall graduation rate. This serves to focus attention on those students most likely to drop out of school.
Schools must test students annually. In at least one grade between 10th and 12th grades, all students must be tested on the core subjects of math, reading, and science, with appropriate accommodations for students with disabilities or with limited English language proficiency.
All high school teachers of core subjects should meet their states' "highly qualified" status. Core subjects include English, reading, or language arts; math; science; foreign languages; government and civics; economics; arts; history; and geography. Highly qualified teachers have at least a bachelor's degree, full certification, and a demonstrated competence in the subject area, and may be required to take continuing education courses.
The overall goal of No Child Left Behind is that all — literally 100% — of high school students achieve proficient levels of knowledge and abilities in core subjects by spring 2014.
As you can see, No Child Left Behind does not require passing an exit exam to receive a diploma, but with the emphasis on annual tests, graduation accountability, and meeting yearly objectives, many states have turned to high school exit examinations both to ensure that their graduates are ready for the world, to prove that they have met their annual goals, and to retain their ongoing federal funding.