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High School Test Terrain Shifting From Exit Exams to College-Readiness

Fewer students are being required to pass exit exams to graduate from high school, but high school testing is increasing because more states are requiring college- and career-readiness tests, according to a study released today.

Those are a couple of the key takeaways from a study released by the Center on Education Policy. It is the 10th in a series of annual reports that examine trends in high school testing. Its findings are echoed in states' applications for waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, as well.

My colleague Caralee Adams gives us the lowdown on the CEP study in her blog, College Bound. Among the findings: In 2010-11, 25 states—down from 28 the previous year—require students to pass a comprehensive exam or end-of-course tests to earn a diploma.

Some of that shift came from places like Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, which used to require exit exams, but now incorporate the scores from those tests into students' grades in a course they must take to graduate.

The downward trend in required exit exams, though, is being offset by a rise in other kinds of tests. The CEP study shows that states are responding to the national pressure to prepare students for college and work and to figure out a way to gauge how well they've done that.

So what are states using as gauges? The CEP report is heavy on names you already know: the SAT or PSAT, ACT's college-admissions exam and its PLAN, EXPLORE, or WorkKeys tests. (While students are required to take these tests in some places, they're not required to "pass" or reach a certain score to graduate.) The newness of this trend shows in the numbers: Of the 11 states that currently require, or plan to require, college-entrance exams, five started doing so as recently as 2009-10.

Of course, this isn't too surprising, given the high profile of the national debate on college readiness. It's been a drumbeat of the Obama administration from the get-go. And so it's no surprise that you can see the college- and career-readiness testing trend woven through states' applications for waivers from NCLB, too. I saw this recently when I curled up with the applications to take a look at states' plans to implement "college- and career-ready" standards and assessments, as desired by the U.S. Department of Education.

My colleagues Michele McNeil and Alyson Klein provide an overview of the waiver program in this story, and in this one, Michele details the 11 state applicants' plans to revamp their accountability systems under the program, including new college- and career-readiness indicators some of them are building into those systems. We'll have more stories on other aspects of states' plans on our website soon, including one from me on states' standards-and-assessment plans.

To give you an advance flavor of how states are gearing up to assess teenagers' readiness for work and college, here are a few highlights from the applications:

• Georgia has gone particularly heavy into career-readiness indicators in its accountability system, including things like the percentage of students earning industry certificates or the ACT's Work Ready Certificate.

• Kentucky's higher education system has agreed to allow students who meet the ACT's college-readiness benchmark to skip remedial courses.

• With its higher ed. system, Florida has designed a new test (the cheerfully named PERT) that allows students to go straight into credit-bearing courses in public colleges and universities if they reach the agreed-upon cutoff score. It will also use this test, as well as SAT and ACT scores, as a "readiness" gauge in its accountability system.

• Minnesota's state colleges and universities have deemed its math standards and test cutoff scores sufficient to allow students to skip remedial work upon entry.

• Indiana will try using the ACT and SAT suites as a gauge of college readiness until the common assessments are ready in 2014.

How valid are these tests for measuring what states want them to measure? There are varied views on that, and many eager to see what this increasingly large-scale experiment produces.

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