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A student taking an exam

A new study finds that state exit exams, which students must pass to graduate, reduce high school completion rates.

The price of high school exit exams

From eNews, May 15, 2008

As approximately three million U.S. high school seniors prepare to graduate, tens of thousands of their classmates have put their own graduation on hold because they have yet to pass state-mandated high school exit exams.

New research by sociology professors John Robert Warren at the University of Minnesota and Eric Grodsky at the University of California, Davis, challenges the value of state exit examinations, both to the students who are denied diplomas and to the general public which foots the bill to develop, administer, and score the tests. They find that state exit exams, which students must pass to graduate, reduce high school completion rates, but neither boost academic achievement nor improve graduates' post-high school labor market prospects.

State high school exit exam policies have been implemented in recent decades to ensure that graduates have the skills required to succeed in college and in the 21st-century global economy. The exams--popular among politicians, policy makers, and business leaders nationwide--are in place in 23 states, including Minnesota, and affect about two of every three students in the class of 2008.

In a study to be published in an upcoming issue of Educational Policy, the researchers found that state exit exams--including more rigorous exams implemented in some states in recent years--have no measurable impact on 13- to 17-year-old students' reading or math achievement levels. In a companion study published in Sociology of Education, Warren and Grodsky found that young people who had earned diplomas in states that required exit exams experienced the same chances of employment and the same wage rates as those who were not required to pass exit exams.

Let's chat about exit exams

Watch a video interview with University of Minnesota sociology professor John Robert Warren.

As a result, the researchers argue, state exit examinations deny diplomas to students who do not pass them without doing any good for those who do, and thus should either be greatly modified to achieve their goals or abandoned entirely.

"For many people, denying diplomas to some students in order to more broadly boost academic achievement is an acceptable trade-off," says Warren. "But there's no evidence that exit exams boost the academic achievement or workplace preparedness of U.S. high school students."

The researchers believe the reason that states' exit exams fail to boost student achievement or workplace preparedness has to do with the low standards most states set for passing the tests. Unwilling to deny diplomas to large, politically unpalatable numbers of students, most states align their exit exams to standards that do not produce measurable gains in academic achievement or workplace preparedness.