States Try Harder, But Gaps Persist: High School Exit Exams 2005

Liam Julian

Center on Education Policy
August 2005

University professors and myriad employers across the nation have repeatedly voiced the same complaint - the majority of U.S. high school graduates lack the skills necessary to succeed in either the collegiate or professional world. High school exit examinations, instituted in large part to address this problem, are now a requirement in 26 states. In 19 of them, students must register a passing score to receive a diploma. In its fourth annual report dissecting exit examination trends in all but one of these states, the Center on Education Policy finds mostly depressing results. The percentage of students passing exit exams on their first try has stagnated, and large gaps persist between minority students, special education students, and English-language learners, and the rest of their classmates. To get greater traction, states are starting to invest both time and money to develop more support for students preparing for the exams. In some states, more dollars have been funneled to remediation programs for struggling students, and in others, curricula have been redefined so higher-level material is introduced in earlier grades. Unfortunately, not all reforms reflect this sound approach, and some seem regressive. Arizona, for example, has instituted the self-defeating practice of using a student's good grades to make up for his or her low exit exam scores. (If grades represented meaningful standards, we wouldn't need statewide exams.) Other states have simply downgraded their exit exam passing requirements altogether. Will the recent efforts of the nation's governors to make high school more rigorous lead to greater progress in time for next year's report? Stand by. Meanwhile, you can find this year's here.