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November 1, 2005
Vol. 63
No. 3

Special Report / The Perils of High School Exit Exams

    Special Report / The Perils of High School Exit Exams- thumbnail
      Each month, Special Report summarizes a recent research study (or several studies related to the same topic) containing findings of importance to Educational Leadership readers. The purpose of this column is not to endorse or refute the conclusions of the study or studies summarized, but rather to keep readers informed about timely research that may significantly influence education policy and practice.
      State laws that require students to pass an exit examination to receive a high school diploma can harm students and schools, according to a new report by Linda Darling-Hammond and her colleagues at Stanford University's School Redesign Network. In Multiple Measures Approaches to High School Graduation, the researchers present evidence that inflexible high school exit exam policies can reduce graduation rates (especially among minority students and students with disabilities); narrow the curriculum; and lead schools to neglect higher-order thinking skills.
      For example, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), graduation rates fell between 1998 and 2001 in the five states that required exit examinations during that period without alternative performance measurement options. The data show a graduation rate decline of 4 percent in Indiana, 2 percent in North Carolina, 3 percent in New York, 5 percent in Florida, and 1 percent in South Carolina. Other studies have confirmed the relationship between high school graduation exams and lower graduation rates.
      In addition to forcing more students out of school, graduation exam requirements can impoverish the schooling experience of those who do graduate, asserts the report. Placing so much importance on one test encourages schools to narrow curriculum and instruction to focus only on the objectives tested. As the report points out, the “multiple-choice and short-answer tests that are currently used to measure standards in many states” result in less emphasis on the complex thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills that students need.
      Professional testing experts warn against relying on any one test as the sole source of information for important education decisions. No test, they say, can be reliable and valid enough to fulfill such a role.
      Fortunately, only a handful of states currently require students to pass exit examinations to receive a high school diploma without offering students any other options or alternatives to demonstrate their learning. In fact, more than half of the 25 states with high school exit examinations either have developed or are in the process of developing systems that rely on multiple measures of performance as the basis for graduation. Such measures include portfolios, performance assessments, grades in courses tied to state standards, and student exhibitions of learning. NCES data indicate that, in contrast to the decreasing graduation rates in states with test-only graduation systems, states that introduced multiple measures assessment systems in the 1990s tend to maintain higher and steadier rates of graduation.
      • Encourages teaching and evaluating a more ambitious range of thinking and performance skills.
      • Recognizes different ways of demonstrating learning, reducing the likelihood of inappropriate placement decisions for students with special needs and English language learners.
      • Increases the validity and defensibility of decisions regarding who does and does not graduate.
      • Provides diagnostic information to improve instruction.
      • Rewards student investment in school attendance and course performance.
      • Encourages student engagement and increases the likelihood of students continuing in school through graduation.
      But even as the report's authors applaud states' efforts to develop creative approaches to the challenge of raising high school graduation standards, they point to a troubling countertrend. No Child Left Behind's requirements for annual testing of students in grades 3–8 have reduced innovation in state testing programs. The costs associated with increased testing requirements have caused some states to reduce or abandon performance-oriented assessments. In view of high-stakes testing pressures, educators will have to work hard to maintain a commitment to “standards that shape more powerful learning.”
      End Notes

      1 States that have developed or are developing multiple measures are Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. Multiple Measures Approaches to High School Graduation: A Review of State Student Assessment Policies was written by Linda Darling-Hammond, Elle Rustique-Forrester, and Raymond L. Pecheone and published by the School Redesign Network, Stanford University School of Education, Stanford, California, 2005. The full report is available at

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