The Case for Exit Exams and State Tests
Many countries have a series of rigorous exams that are a requirement to graduate from high school or secondary school. These exams often involve a point system that determines not only whether students are qualified to go to college but also whether they are qualified to pursue a particular major. The exams typically cover not only Language Arts and Math but also foreign languages, the sciences and the humanities. Considering that our students will be competing for the jobs of the future with people around the world, should we implement these kinds of exams in the United States to help ensure future competitiveness?
Exit exams are becoming increasingly popular in the United States but they're very controversial. There were lawsuits when the California exit exam (CAHSEE) was first required. Unfortunately, the tests that are in place in many states are probably too unchallenging to significantly raise student performance and they typically only cover English and Math. Our students are increasingly avoiding difficult college majors, such as engineering and the sciences, which will seriously impact America's economic competitiveness. Setting low expectations is probably not the best way to improve student achievement and prepare more students to pursue challenging majors.
Arguments Against Exit Exams
The Fairness Argument
Exit exams are controversial in the US and the fairness argument is typically made by critics. As an example:
“Taking a tough stand while pounding on a podium in the presence of other legislators does not make learning disabilities and learning styles disappear. Mandating accountability does not find homeless children a home, does not make drive by shootings disappear, does not make dads appear in a single parent home and it doesn’t improve language skills for ESL students (English as a Second Language).” 1
This suggests that exit exams can be unfair to particular types of students, such as right brained students or those with challenges, such as limited English, poverty or learning disabilities. I'm sympathetic to these arguments. I grew up poor and I have a child with a learning disability. But I don't think these are valid reasons to not have exit exams. They are arguments for doing more to help struggling kids.
Exam results can actually be very good predictors of college readiness. What's the point of having a diploma if it isn't worth the paper it's printed on? What's the point in starting college if you'll lack the necessary skills to finish?
Opponents of exit exams are well-meaning. But they fail to understand that letting unqualified students graduate actually does nothing to help those students in any way. If you lack basic reading, writing and math skills, having a diploma versus not having one probably won't matter much. Employers will not want employees who lack basic skills. Students who lack basic skills usually won't be able to complete college.
Teaching to the Test
Teaching to the test can be a problem when the tests aren't very good. This is a big problem with the No Child Left Behind tests. Fill in the bubble tests often do a poor job of testing knowledge and skills. But tests can be done well. If teachers are preparing students to pass high quality tests that gauge literacy, effective writing skills, math skills, analytical skills, critical thinking skills and general knowledge in several fields, that can only be a good thing.
One Exam Shouldn't Determine a Person's Future
Unfortunately, there's no perfect way to do anything. Every option will have advantages and disadvantages. But if you look at America's drop out rate (which is almost on par with Mexico's), declining college graduation rates relative to other nations, and abysmal performance on international tests, it's obvious that what we're doing now isn't working. If a challenging exit exam can increase motivation and learning, that can overcome any potential downsides.
Some Students Don't Test Well
It is true that some students are better than others at taking tests. But if you look at countries that have graduation exams, the vast majority of students pass. These are typically tough, challenging tests often with no multiple choice or true / false questions. If a student has a good understanding of the material, they should be able to pass without much difficulty.
The Advantages of Having Exit Exams
Tough exit exams and point systems can create a strong incentive for students to learn. In America, students often gravitate toward easier classes to keep their GPAs high. Parents often confront teachers who give their kids low grades. This can lead to grade inflation and make many teachers wary of giving low grades, even when they're deserved. Education has become too much about grades and GPAs. Learning is almost an afterthought. Students often have little incentive to remember anything they've learned after passing a course. Graduation exams create a strong incentive to not only learn but to remember what has been learned.
Exit exams can also put pressure on schools to prepare students to pass. This can be a huge benefit to disadvantaged students who are often put through an assembly line type education. Get them on in kindergarten, push them through each grade whether they've learned the material or not, and then push them out at the other end with a worthless diploma.
If you look at exit exams in other countries, the vast majority of students actually pass these exams. These countries also have poverty, students who don't speak the native language well, right brained students and kids with learning disabilities. The fact that a large number of these students can pass exit exams indicates that this is possible in the United States. Like other countries, we should be able to get to a point where most of our students can pass. This is far better than under-educating too many students and then sending them out into the world with a diploma that doesn't mean very much.
Exams Can Accurately Predict College Success
Exam results usually are good predictors of who will do well in college. According to Peter Salins, who served as Provost of the State University of New York (SUNY) from 1997 to 2006:
"SUNY Old Westbury, always the university system's academically weakest campus, was able to improve its graduation rate by over 95 percent in four years after it instituted higher SAT requirements, increasing its entering students' SAT scores by 13.3 percent between 1997 and 2001. Purchase College, a highly specialized place centered on the fine and performing arts, increased SAT scores by 10.3 percent, and saw graduation rates rise by 22.4 percent.
Most revealingly, the seven SUNY campuses that stuck with their prior selectivity profiles, meaning their entering students' SAT scores between 1997 and 2001 were stable or rose only modestly, actually saw their graduation rates decline." 2
If raising SAT score requirements can increase graduation rates, it would likely indicate that poorly performing students typically don't do well in college and will usually drop out. It doesn't help students when we bury our heads in the sand, and hope that handing out diplomas to those who lack basic skills will give them future academic and career success.
Too often testing is dismissed for the simple reason that critics don't like the results. They see that economically disadvantaged students typically don't do well. But killing the messenger (in this case the tests) won't improve the prospects of these students. Rather than dismissing testing, we should embrace rigorous and demanding tests and do our best to make sure that most of our students will be prepared to pass. If many other countries can do it, why can't we?