In the News: The Exit Exam Paradox

In an article for The 74 this week, “The Exit Exam Paradox: Did States Raise Standards So High They Then Had to Lower the Bar to Graduate?” Matt Barnum looks at what states are doing about their exit exams now that they are using Common Core-aligned tests, which are harder than the old state tests they used.

He explains

In most states, far fewer students were rated “proficient” on the Common Core–aligned tests than on the old assessments, which was by design — the standards were raised to better indicate “college and career readiness.” New York for example saw less than a third of students meet the new proficiency bar, down from around half.

But if states enforced similarly stringent requirements for exit exams, graduation rates — now over 80 percent nationally — would plummet and political outrage would ensue. Some even predicted that the high school dropout rate might double.

It didn’t, however, because states did the only sensible thing: they lowered the bar in one way or another.

ednext-june2016-blog-ototn-exit-examsAfter describing what is happening in the states that are watering down, delaying, or eliminating their exit exams, Barnum explains why he thinks these changes are a good thing.

But are exit exams such a bad idea?

To better understand the case for exit exams, you could read this piece by Paul E. Peterson. Peterson notes

The impact of the exit exam policy in Massachusetts is worth noting, especially since the proficiency threshold for passing the state test is one of the highest in the United States. When the state in 2003 required students to pass the proficiency bar on the high school examination offered to tenth graders, critics claimed many students would fail. But when students were faced with the exam, the passing rate, even for first-time test-takers, shifted dramatically upward. Those who failed were given opportunities to take the test as many as five additional times. The number of students who never passed the exam was so small that the test quickly became an accepted practice. Significantly, student test performance climbed at other grade levels as well (fig. 1). The state’s performance on NAEP also shifted upward so that it became the top-performing state in the country. Its performance on international tests ranks with the world’s leaders. How much the introduction of a high school graduation examination requirement has contributed to recent gains in student performance in Massachusetts isn’t known. [7] But the former secretary of education for the state of Massachusetts, David Driscoll, during whose tenure the policy was introduced, attributes much of the state’s success to the introduction of the exam requirement (even though he implemented numerous other policy changes as well).

 An older Ed Next article, by John Bishop, “A Steeper, Better Road to Graduation,” argued that “it’s time for America to adopt European-style exit exams.”

– Education Next

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College