New report claims H.S. exit exams need work

With high school exit exams now determining whether the majority of the nation's public school students will graduate, states must do more to address achievement gaps for students most likely to fail.

With exam policies and student expectations more firmly in place, states have an opportunity and responsibility to give students a better chance to learn material being tested, according to a study released in August by the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education Policy (CEP).

According to the report, which tracks the impact of the tests in 20 states that now require them and five more that will by 2009, most states report pass rates of 65 to 85 percent for students taking the exams the first time.

However, large gaps in pass rates persist for black and Hispanic, low-income, and disabled students, and English language learners who in some cases can be more than twice as likely to fail.

Meanwhile, 19 of the 25 states surveyed have completed or are now studying the alignment of their exams with state standards. Despite research showing that teachers coverage of standards is clearly linked to improved student performance, most states have not examined whether schools are actually covering content assessed by the tests, the study reveals.

"States have held firm on exit exam policies and requirements," says Jack Jennings, director of CEP. "But ensuring that all students have an opportunity to learn the material being tested is the next great challenge for states, who must address the adequacy and effectiveness of exam-related supports they provide."

Currently, more than half (52 percent) of all public school students and even more (55 percent) minority public school students live in states requiring they pass the tests in order to graduate. By 2009, 7 in 10 public school students and 8 in 10 minority students nationwide will be affected, according to State High School Exit Exams: A Maturing Reform, the third in a series of annual studies conducted by the Center.

The report finds that with the right conditions, exit exams "probably have some positive effects on student motivation and achievement," but also may encourage some students to pursue a general education diploma (GED) instead of a regular diploma, and that the tests may be linked to increased dropout rates for key groups of students and states with tougher exam systems.

But while percentages of students eventually passing exit exams after multiple attempts are 90 percent or more in states reporting these data to CEP, these figures are only available from in a few states and may not include students that have dropped out before their senior year. Ultimately, most states are not yet able to determine how many students have been denied a diploma for failing an exit exam.

To address these challenges, more states are offering exam-related support to teachers and students, including targeted professional development programs (14 states), and information guides, lesson plans, or curriculum guides for teachers (19 states). However, only 11 states have developed programs to help students prepare for or retake the test, such as weekend, after-school or summer tutorial programs, computer-based lessons, or study guides.

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