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New CEP Report on State High School Exit Exams

by Carol Fry Bohlin—California State University, Fresno (News Bulletin, October 2003)

Last month's Assessment Issues column presented a snapshot of exit exam requirements throughout the United States. In that column, we mentioned the first in a series of reports on exit exams compiled by the Center on Education Policy (CEP). In August, CEP released the second report in its series, State High School Exit Exams: Put to the Test.

This report outlines CEP's principal findings and recommendations about exit exams; describes how these exams are affecting curriculum, instruction, and students; examines the main features of the exams; presents the cost of implementing exit exams; and discusses the major challenges that states face as they implement exit exams. The report also includes profiles of each state's high school exit exam.

Test Characteristics

The CEP report gives detailed information about high school exit exams in the 24 states that currently have or will implement exit exams by 2008. Of these states, 14 set no time limits on the test. Nine release no test questions or responses, but 12 release some of both, and three states (New York, Ohio, and Texas) release all questions and responses. Although all states that give exit exams release subject-area scores and subscores to test takers, only three (New Mexico, Texas, and Virginia) provide feedback on item performance.

Test Results Vary

CEP estimates that by 2008, exit exams are likely to affect 70 percent of public school students and 80 percent of minority students in the 24 states that have currently implemented or plan to implement exit exams. Although initial pass rates vary considerably from state to state and in different subject areas, the report reveals significant gaps in initial and cumulative pass rates among certain groups of students. (The term "initial" refers to the percentage of students who pass the test on the first try, while the term "cumulative" refers to the percentage of students who eventually pass by the time they are ready to graduate.) In all 12 states for which the report includes disaggregated performance data, African American, Hispanic, and poor and disabled students, as well as English language learners, had lower pass rates than their white counterparts in reading and mathematics. In most instances, pass rates were significantly lower.

For example, the gaps in initial pass rates between white and African American students in mathematics range from 17 percentage points in Georgia to 45 percentage points in Minnesota. The pass rate gaps in mathematics between white and Hispanic students are also generally wide, ranging from 9 percentage points in North Carolina to 41 percentage points in Massachusetts for first-time test takers. Initial pass rates for students with disabilities are discouragingly low, ranging from 4 percent in Washington to 54 percent in Virginia. As states have begun to withhold diplomas and phase in new tests, public and political pressure has grown, resulting in modifications in some testing systems.

The director of CEP, Jack Jennings, said, "The states are struggling with maintaining a balance between firmness and fairness. While states want to refrain from watering down requirements, they are seeing low pass rates for minority, poor, and disabled students."

Impact of Exit Exams

The report finds that the exams appear to have a positive impact on curriculum and instruction and seem to encourage schools to cover more of the state standards and add remedial and other special courses for students at risk of failing. Research released by the Human Resources Research Organization on California's exit exam program noted a "profound" impact on instruction, with the number of high schools that report covering at least 75 percent of the state's standards increasing from about 20 percent in 1999 to more than 80 percent today. However, CEP also notes a moderate amount of evidence suggesting that the exams are associated with higher dropout rates, although the research is inconclusive.

"While we cannot yet directly link exit exams to higher dropout rates, there is enough evidence to suggest a relationship between the two," said Keith Gayler, CEP's associate director and leader of the exit exam project.

The Hidden Costs

To determine what kind of economic challenges states face in implementing the tests, CEP contracted with a consulting firm to develop a method of estimating the state and local costs of implementing mandatory state high school exit exams, and to test that method in one state. Indiana, which has a well-developed exit exam, was selected for analysis. The study found that developing and administering exit exams are a small share of costs, whereas remediation and the hidden costs of exit exams, such as preventive services for at-risk students and professional development, account for most of the expenses.

The study estimated that Indiana's annual implementation costs for exit exams is about $442 million, or $444 per pupil, equivalent to 5.5 percent of the state's K–12 expenditures. The cost of raising scores to meet performance targets is even greater and would require an additional $682 million, equivalent to 8.5 percent of the state's K–12 budget on top of what the state already spends. Yet, Indiana's dedicated state funding for exit exams covers only a minimal amount of the estimated cost for the program, leaving districts to search for funds to cover the rest.

For More Information

State High School Exit Exams: Put to the Test is available online at www.ctredpol.org/highschoolexit/1/exitexam4.pdf. For more information on CEP and its other publications, visit www.cep-dc.org.

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