Are high school exit exams necessary? More states are saying no

Many states across the county are changing their high school graduation requirements.

Students in Mississippi, for example, no longer are required to pass all their final tests in order to receive a diploma.

“This option gives students another way to demonstrate that they have mastered their course work without making the requirements for graduation contingent upon the outcome of any one particular test,” said John Kelly, chairman of the Mississippi Department of Education.

Mississippi schools are still required to give exams in Algebra, English, Biology and U.S. History, but they now count as 25 percent of a student’s overall grade in each class under the new policy.

About half of U.S. states choose not to use the “exit exams.” They were begun by southern states back in the 1970s to create a standard to identify how to increase student performance, according to Jennifer Zinth, high school policy center director at the Education Commission of the States.

Zinth said that Georgia, North Carolina and most recently Arizona are also not using an exit exam policy, while states like New York and California require their students to pass tests in order to receive a diploma.

Supporters believe the tests motivate students to work harder and set an achievement standard in their state.

Critics think exit exams are unnecessary and place too much pressure on students -- ultimately decreasing graduation rates.

“These exit exams do nothing to prepare students better for college or for employment,” said Monty Neill, executive director of the FairTest Organization. “It’s one of these feel-good efforts that has horrible consequences.”

There is disagreement and conflicting information published about the exams. A study analyzing high school tests from 1975 through 2002 shows high school graduation rates decrease when a state requires exit exams.

But a study published by the Manhattan Institute reports “exit exams have no effect on a state’s graduation rate.”

Zinth said there is no correlation between student performance in education and exit exams. “If you look at the scores over the years, Massachusetts tends to be at the top along with Maryland and Virginia. And those states have all had exit exams for over a decade,” said Zinth, adding that Mississippi has also had a long history of using exit exams but its students performances are near last place.

Mississippi’s graduation rate is six points below the nation’s 81 percent average and ranks last on many national education benchmarks, including a 50th place spot on the American Physical Society’s Science and Engineering Readiness Index.

The new Common Core Initiative -- a national program adopted by more than 40 states to raise English and math standards -- is also complicating how exit exams will be implemented or changed in the future, a policy brief published by New America Education reports.

“The Common Core-aligned tests being developed by two state consortia are expected to be harder than ones states administer now, and, particularly at first, fewer students will pass them,” New America Education said.

Twenty-one states plan to continue high school exit exam policies with Common Core standards, including Florida, Texas, California and New York -- while six of those states face a complicated transition for their high school exit exam policies, according to New America Education.