July 15, 2014

An Exit Ramp for Exit Exams?

By Bellwether

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Accountability policies in education often suffer from trying to satisfy two competing desires. Accountability hawks want tough policies that establish minimal standards to ensure that a student’s education means something in the real world. Opportunity advocates want to ensure that all students are given sufficient chances and point to data suggesting that societies are better off with a more educated citizenry. Both of these are reasonable positions, but combined together they can lead to indecipherable mush.

High school exit exams offer one example of how these impulses collide. Designed to be a tough, rigorous bar for completion, exit exams have failed to boost student achievement or certify students as prepared for college or career success. On the lower end, despite states enacting policies allowing numerous re-takes or alternative routes to passing, exit exams slightly reduce the likelihood that disadvantaged students will finish high school at all. My go-to example of this conundrum is Maryland, where, in the first two years of implementing its new high school exit exams, 0.06 percent of its seniors were denied a high school diploma because of the new, “stronger” graduation requirements. Even in 2013, Maryland’s exit exams ultimately prevented only 13 (!) 12th graders in the entire state from graduating, an unlucky baker’s dozen of students who failed to pass the High School Assessments, complete an alternate route called a “Bridge Plan,” or receive a state waiver.

Today’s report from New America’s Anne Hyslop looks at the history of high school exit exams (sometimes called “minimum competency exams” or “graduation exams”) and the tensions between high standards and high attainment. Most importantly, she outlines a path forward for states with existing exams (24 as of last year) as they navigate new tests aligned to the Common Core, concerns about over-testing, and demands for students to leave high school ready for college-level work. Read it here.

–Chad Aldeman

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