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Growth in Use of Exit Exams Stalls, As States Adjust Existing
Requirements To Create Greater Flexibility for Students
Tests Remain “A Force” In Education, Report Finds,
But Gaps In Pass Rates Persist for Key Student Groups
WASHINGTON – August 16, 2006 – For the first time, growth in the number of states requiring
students to pass an exit exam in order to earn a high school diploma has stalled, according to a
report from the independent, Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education Policy, which also tracks
significant changes in how exit exams are being implemented nationwide.
According to the report, no state legislature adopted a new exit exam requirement in 2006 although
Maryland, Washington, and Oklahoma are following through on plans set earlier to phase in exit
exams. Of the four states scheduled to begin withholding diplomas based on exam performance this
year, Arizona and California did so only after facing significant legal challenges, while Utah backed
down from its earlier plans to do so. Idaho began withholding diplomas in 2006 with less conflict and
controversy than other states experienced.
Meanwhile, most of the 25 states that currently require or are phasing in exit exams have moved to
create greater flexibility and support to help struggling students meet the exam requirements. The
report also notes that of the other 25 states, five now ask all students to take the SAT or ACT college
entrance exams, reflecting the push to make college readiness a central focus of high school reform
The new report underscores that exit exams remain a force in education, currently affecting two thirds
of the nation’s 15 million public high school students. By 2012, the report estimates that exit
exams in 25 states will affect 71 percent of the nation’s public high school students and 81 percent
of minority high school students.
Although the research is not entirely conclusive, new studies suggest that exit exams may have a
slightly negative effect on graduation rates, but these exams do not seem to rate very high on the list
of factors influencing a student’s decision to drop out. Exit exams do seem to be having a significant
impact on curriculum. In a survey conducted by the Center for the report, state education officials
reported that students are being encouraged to take more courses in tested subjects, including
reading, writing, mathematics and science.
“States at the center of the exit exam controversy are those now beginning to withhold diplomas, and
they are trying to help struggling students without weakening the integrity and purpose of the
assessments,” said Jack Jennings, president & CEO of the Center. “It is likely that the stalled growth in the use of exit exams is in part due to the fact that other states are waiting to see how legal and
political battles play out before making their own decisions.”
Generally, the percentage of students passing exit exams on the first try ranges from about 70-90
percent in most states and has changed only slightly since 2004. And while several states have
reduced the gaps in pass rates between various subgroups of students, alarming disparities in exam
performance still persist for minority students, low-income students, students with disabilities, and
English language learners.
Cumulative pass rates, which show the percentage of students who eventually pass the exams by
the end of 12th grade, range from 87-95 percent in the six states that reported this information. In
addition, serious gaps for key student subgroups remain even after multiple testing opportunities.
However, cumulative pass rates may not be very reliable, according to the report, because states
use different methods to calculate them and may exclude students who drop out before the last
States Offer Greater Flexibility, Support
During the last year, three states, including Arizona, Maryland and Washington, expanded options
for struggling students to earn a diploma by permitting students in some cases to substitute scores
from tests such as the SAT and ACT; take an alternative assessment; pursue a waiver or appeals
process; earn exam credit through course grades; and use other evidence of competency. California
serves as a notable exception, however, by allowing no alternatives for its general education
students – in part due to a concern that greater flexibility might weaken the purpose of the exams.
Idaho created multiple routes for students to meet the exam requirement and set its passing score
for 2006 at an 8th grade level of performance, with the intention to raise it to the 10th grade level – the
most common level of proficiency for exit exams in the U.S. – over the next two years. These
policies may have helped lessen controversy about withholding diplomas this year.
Meanwhile, a pattern has emerged in state efforts to provide remediation for students, with greater
emphasis being provided in states now beginning to withhold diplomas. According to CEP’s report,
California has tripled its spending on remediation during the past year (from $20 million to more than
$57 million) and Washington plans to spend more than $28 million on remediation in 2006-07, in
advance of its plans to begin withholding diplomas in 2008. In contrast, Indiana and Massachusetts
– states that have had exit exam requirements in place for several years – have recently reduced
spending for remediation.
Overall, 18 of the 25 states with current or planned exit exams require their school districts to offer
remediation courses for students who do not pass portions of the exit exams – while only six states
actually require these students to attend remediation courses, and only 14 states provide state
funding for remediation or related student support programs.
Based in Washington, D.C., and founded in 1995, the Center on Education Policy is a national
independent advocate for public education and for more effective public schools. The Center works to
help Americans better understand the role of public education in a democracy and the need to improve
the academic quality of public schools. The Center does not represent special interests. Instead, it helps
citizens make sense of conflicting opinions and perceptions about public education and create conditions
that will lead to better public schools.
States High School Exit Exams: A Challenging Year, along with CEP’s previous annual reports on exit
exams and other publications, are available at the Center’s Web site: www.cep-dc.org.
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