Teaching to the Test?

Nelly Ward
October 1, 2004

In August 2004, the Center on Education Policy (CEP) released its third annual study of high school exit exams. The study, "State High School Exit Exams: A Maturing Reform," finds that, given the growing influence of exit exams on public schools, the states administering them must provide: appropriate opportunities to learn, remedial help, and alternative options for students. To develop its findings, the report relies heavily on responses to a survey by department of education officials from the 25 states currently requiring or planning to require that students pass exams in order to graduate.

The report examines the emotional and academic effect exit exams have on high school students, but hesitates to draw any major conclusions in this area, citing the lack of clear and conclusive data. The report emphasizes that exit exams are often introduced simultaneously with packages of education reforms that might be credited with any shift in student achievement. It seems that both positive and negative changes result from the implementation of exit exams, and that each state's particular exam has a different package of results. A primary concern of policy analysts, educators, and lawmakers is the effect of exit exams on the dropout rate, a figure that remains difficult to calculate.

As high-stakes testing continues to expand, CEP's report emphasizes that clearly articulated goals, alignment of curriculum and test material, and sufficient teacher training and student supports will be essential to schools' success.

Purpose of Tests
The report argues that the states need to define and clearly articulate specific purposes for their exit exams. When questioned, many states could not concisely state such a purpose. Those that could were predominantly concerned with ensuring that graduates reach a basic level of competency; very few cited college or career preparation as an aim of the testing system. This came as a surprise to researchers, given the dominant position these goals hold in most discussions of high school achievement.

Alignment with Standards
The researchers examine the degree of alignment between the exit exams and the state's defined academic standards. Increasingly relevant is the alignment of these two criteria with Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) indicators under the No Child Left Behind Act, as many states have begun utilizing the exams to measure AYP. Generally the researchers found low levels of alignment, though there were dramatic differences between states. Reasons for non-alignment include recent implementation of the test or recent shifts from minimum-competency exams, designed to test basic levels of knowledge, to standards-based exams, which are more similar in purpose to NCLB standards. The context and timeline of each state's institution of exit exams meant that alignment, along with many other facets covered in the report, is difficult to compare state-to-state.

Need for Policies and Supports
For much of the report, researchers emphasize the need for a system of comprehensive policies and supports in order to make an exit exam effective. In surveying the supports offered by each state, the report indicates that services such as remedial help, diagnostic tests, and extensive teacher training are extremely successful, but require broad funding. Offering the opportunity to re-take the test is another fundamental facet of setting up an exit exam system, and is available in all states currently utilizing exit exams.

These supports are of especially critical importance to two specific sub-groups of students, those with disabilities and English Language Learners. In general, states have alternative options for students with disabilities, ranging from alternative assessments to waivers that allow total exemption from the exams. English Language Learners, on the other hand, are often given less additional support or choice. Only in the case of very recent immigration are students granted exemptions, and they are not offered the option of alternate assessments.

The report also grapples with shifts in testing and education policy that have occurred over the past year. Though most of the states studied were relatively stable over that time, they all dealt with the legislative and political conflict that accompanies standardized testing in education and as applied to NCLB. This is especially true because the achievement gap that exists for minority, low-income, disabled, and ELL students in most standardized tests is no less present in the results of exit exams, subjecting the exams to the same skepticism that other tests have faced. States must walk the line between low standards and low passing rates, and are frequently criticized for both. Because the exams' effects on students remain largely unclear, it is difficult for states to adequately defend their policy against detractors.

The report concludes with a breakdown of exit exam policies in each of the twenty-five states surveyed. Other reports by the Center on Education Policy can be found on their website.