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Report Shows High School Exit Exams in Transition

Last year, half of the states required students to take exit exams before receiving their high school diplomas—about the same amount as the previous year, although the combination has changed slightly.

The Center on Education Policy at The George Washington University released its 11th annual report tracking changes in the high school exam landscape today. It revealed that states are increasingly aligning the tests with career- and college-readiness standards and many will replace their exams with ones developed for the Common Core State Standards.

As for the big picture, the report notes that Oklahoma and Oregon began giving high school exit exams in 2011-12, while North Carolina and Tennessee stopped the practice. Georgia began phasing out the exam in all subjects except English last year and Alabama will cease all forms in 2015. Rhode Island will join the ranks of states giving an exit exam to students in 2014.

(Click here for a breakdown by state of exam policies.)

Looking at all students who take exit exams in the United States, this year's report finds 69 percent of students attend schools in states with exit exams, compared with 76 percent last year. An even higher proportion of underrepresented minorities and poor students take these exams: 71 percent of low-income students, 71 percent of African Americans, 85 percent of Hispanics, and 85 percent of English language learners. Larger percentages of students of color attend schools in states with exit exams.

This year's report shows that end-of-course exams, which focus on a single subject, are becoming increasingly popular as some states move away from the comprehensive exit exam. In 2011-12, there were nine states requiring EOC exams, up from just two states in 2002. Another six states require students to take an EOC exam, but passage is not mandatory for graduation.

Passage rates for exit exams generally range from 70 to 90 percent, the report finds, and every state allows for some opportunity to retake the exam for those who fail. Some states report making changes, such as trying new exams or modifying cut scores to reflect college readiness. Of the states who responded to a special survey from the Center on Education Policy, 12 of the 22 states said that exit-exam requirements are intended to ensure students were ready for college and career.

Even with states beginning to implement the Common Core State Standards, 13 or the 22 states with exit exams intend to maintain their exit exam requirement; another five states surveyed were unsure. Most states with exit exams that have adopted the common core plan to replace their current exit exams in English and mathematics with new assessments aligned with the common standards.

Some states have faced opposition in trying to implement exit exams, including legal challenges and political wrangling, the report notes. In response, alternative routes to graduation have been offered to some students who struggle to pass the exams, along with extra support services. Key features in states that have had the most success in implementing the exams have included: phased in the exit exams over time, flexible policies, a commitment to the exams from key state leaders, and a secure funding source.

Going forward, the Center on Education Policy suggests more research is needed to determine if exit exams have raised achievement and if they will become meaningful measures by colleges and employers.

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