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Do High School Exit Exams Pay Off in the Labor Market?

High school exit exams have become a common fixture in American high school life. By 2006, 22 states had exit exams - and because larger states are more likely to have exams, approximately two-thirds of all high school students face exit exam requirements.

Proponents of exit exams often assert that these tests make the high school diploma more meaningful to employers. If this is the case, these policies should widen the gap in earnings and labor market outcomes between those who earn high school diplomas and those that don't. Despite the popularity of these policies, few papers have examined this claim empirically.

In "State High School Exit Examinations and Postsecondary Labor Market Outcomes," published in the most recent edition of Sociology of Education, Rob Warren, Eric Grodsky, and Jennifer Lee take up this question. Analyzing data from both the Census and the Current Population Survey, they found no evidence that state exit exams positively affect labor force status or earnings. Furthermore, they found no evidence that the effects of these policies vary by race or ethnicity, or by the level of difficulty of the exit exam.

In short, exit exams do nothing to increase the labor market value of the high school diploma. At the same time, other evidence suggests that exit exams (especially more difficult ones) are associated with lower public high school completion rates and higher rates of General Educational Development test taking (see Warren et al., High School Exit Examinations and State Level Completion and GED Rates, 1975-2002). Others find that exit exams increase inequality in rates of high school completion, and especially influence African-American students' odds of completing high school. (See Dee and Jacob, Do High School Exit Exams Influence Educational Attainment or Labor Market Performance?)

Of course, it is possible that exit exams help improve the quality of education in lower grades, though I've seen little evidence on this point. Readers, what do you think? Do exit exams hurt more than they help?

The studies cited here add to the already strong evidence that high school graduation tests are an unsound public policy from the perspectives of both educational equity and excellence. For an update on current exit exam controversies, http://www.fairtest.org/exit-exam-battles-continue and, for more general information on the topic http://www.fairtest.org/whats-wrong-graduation-and-promotion-tests

Bob Schaeffer, Public Education Director
FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing

I'd certainly like to see the number of high stakes tests reduced, especially if there is little demonstrated benefit.

If we are going to have exit exams, it would be nice to know what we thought high school graduates should know. And I can't imagine that the answers should be different in Texas, Missouri, New York, or Oregon.

In New York, we have a new math exam (integrated algebra) which will become, de facto, the exit exam in mathematics. Yet it was aligned to some goofy standards document. It was produced without any thought devoted to the question: "what should a hs grad be expected to know?"

How could this sort of exit exam do anything but hurt?

Is it typical?

In addition to the links on testing that Bob Schaeffer posted in his reply, FairTest studied whether there was a link between state level grade 8 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores and a state having a graduation test. The answer was that states without grad tests did better, but it was not a strong finding. Still, it adds to the larger body of evidence that high-stakes tests don't actually improve learning outcomes on anything beyond the high-stakes test itself. The study is a chapter by me in the book Raising Standards or Raising Barriers, ed by Gary Orfield and Mindy Kornhaber.

Monty Neill
Deputy Director

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Monty Neill: In addition to the links on testing that Bob Schaeffer read more
  • Jonathan: I'd certainly like to see the number of high stakes read more
  • Bob Schaeffer: The studies cited here add to the already strong evidence read more




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