State High School Exit Exams: A Move Toward End-of-Course Exams

Center on Education Policy
August 2008

The Center on Education Policy has been following the progress of state high school exit examinations since 2002, and this is its seventh (!) annual report on the topic. This edition focuses on the move away from some types of exit tests (e.g., minimum-competency exams) and toward end-of-course exams that assess mastery of specific classes. Currently, only four states have policies requiring these end-of-course exams, but eleven will by 2015. The big story, however, is that in 2007-2008, 23 states had some type of exit exam and withheld diplomas from students who failed them (68 percent of America's high school population had to pass an exit exam to graduate). This sounds like tough love, but it may just be coddling in disguise. States rarely make public, for example, how many students pass their tests via an "alternative path to graduation" (e.g., substitute exams, waivers, "multiple indicators of mastery," production of original finger paintings, etc.). And they don't tell how many pass exit exams, which may be of dubious rigor, only after numerous retakes. The lack of reliable state data is exacerbated by the accompanying lack of national data, too. And it's profoundly unfortunate that a state with an exit exam would allow a student who doesn't pass it to graduate nonetheless. CEP estimates that 74 percent of the nation's high school students will be affected by exit exams by 2012. Affected how is a question that we aren't able to answer at this point. You can read the report here.

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