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High School Exit Exams across the Nation

by Eric Milou (Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ) and Carol Fry Bohlin (California State University, Fresno),
Column Editor (News Bulletin, September 2003)

States Requiring that Students Pass a Designated Exam for a High School Diploma

traffic_lightCurrently Required (2003–2004)
To be Required (see PDF file available online for implementation year*)
Not Required (or No Decision Yet)**

assessment Issues

** Some states in which an exit exam is not a state requirement permit districts to implement such a requirement if desired.

The current drive for accountability and evidence-based approaches to education has increased the use of assessments in schools. Although not specifically required by federal mandates, many states have designed testing programs for high school students that include a "high-stakes exit exam"—an assessment that a student must pass in order to receive a high school diploma. The Center on Education Policy explains the rationale behind the use of these exams in its August 2002 document, State High School Exit Exams: A Baseline Report: "States are adopting exit exams primarily to ensure that students graduate from high school with the knowledge and skills needed to do well in a job, college, and other aspects of life" (see for a link to this and other reports on testing).

Prevalence and Purpose of Exit Exams

Currently, 26 states have implemented—or have plans to implement by 2008—mandatory high-stakes exit exams that assess competency in mathematics and language arts. In addition, five of the 24 states that do not have state-mandated exit exams give school districts the option of requiring that a student pass a test to graduate from high school.

The purpose, nature, rigor, and format of exit exams vary widely among the states. Although some states view the mathematics portion of an exit exam as an indicator of a student's readiness for college-level coursework in mathematics, other states view the exam as a measure of a student's basic mathematics skills and the ability to apply those skills to real-world situations. Some states employ or plan to employ end-of-course exams that students must pass to receive credit for courses such as algebra 1 and geometry. A number of states require students to take an exit exam in addition to mandatory grade-level or end-of-course tests. In these instances, the exit exams (which may be less rigorous mathematically than other required tests) determine whether or not a student will receive a high school diploma.

Item Format

Of the 26 states that currently have (or plan to have) exit exams, only eight use instruments composed solely of multiple-choice items. The item formats of the mathematics assessments for 17 of these 26 states include constructed response, short answer, and extended task, in addition to multiple choice.

Twenty-two states that do not have exit exams require that specific mathematics tests be given to high school students as accountability measures. (School districts in Iowa and Nebraska are allowed to select their own assessment instruments.) Sixteen of these 22 states use tests that include item formats other than multiple choice.

Calculator Use

Eighty-one percent of the states that require exit exams allow calculators to be used on at least some test items. Similarly, 79 percent of the states without exit exams allow calculators to be used on state-mandated mathematics tests for high school students (grades 9–12). Texas actually requires high school students to use a graphing calculator on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). In Idaho, a drop-down calculator appears on selected test items in the computerized version of the Idaho Standards Achievement Test (ISAT).

The Dakota Assessment of Content Standards (DACS) is administered online and requires that test-takers in grades 8–12 have calculators, since test items were specifically designed so that students would need to use this tool. A unique feature of the computerized assessments in Idaho and South Dakota is the ability of the tests to adapt the difficulty level of the items to a student's performance on previous items. In addition, because the tests are computerized, the results are available immediately.

Controversy over Tests

High-stakes tests—exit exams in particular—continue to be the subject of much controversy. Lawsuits have been threatened against states on behalf of parents of special needs students and on behalf of students who have not had the opportunity to learn the standards-based material contained on the new exit exams. Protests over the high failure rate in numerous states (e.g., California, Massachusetts, and Florida) have caused some legislators and state school boards to consider delaying the exams. New York recently temporarily suspended the Math A Regents Exam to allow time to examine the test results and causes of students' lack of success on the test. Some states (e.g., New Jersey and Pennsylvania) are considering granting differentiated high school diplomas on the basis of students' performance on exit exams; such proposals provoke considerable controversy.

Numerous professional associations have produced position papers urging that single tests not be the sole determining factor for major decisions such as the granting of a high school diploma. For example, in November 2000, NCTM released a position statement on this issue, stating that "far-reaching and critical educational decisions should be made only on the basis of multiple measures. A well-conceived system of assessment and accountability must consist of a number of assessment components at various levels.... To use a single objective test in the determination of such things as graduation, course credit, grade placement, promotion to the next grade, or placement in special groups is a serious misuse of such tests" (High-Stakes Tests (January 2006)). Certainly high-stakes testing will continue to be an area of intense discussion and debate for the foreseeable future.

Note: Because information on state testing programs is often outdated by the time an article is published, readers of this column are encouraged to access, which contains links to the Web sites of every state's assessment programs as well as a chart containing updates of the data summarized in this article. Please contact Eric Milou at with any updates or corrections, or for more information regarding this research.

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