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Exit Exams Continue to Fuel Debate as States Examine Alternatives

High school exit exams lie at the heart of one of the largest and most vigorously debated controversies in the American high school landscape. These tests, introduced to verify that graduating students had mastered the core curriculum, also helped college-bound students prepare for postsecondary education. However, the test has caused far more complications than the test-takers and the administrators bargained for, suggests the Center on Education Policy.

According to reports from CEP, many states that require exit exams have adjusted their often strict stipulations to permit more latitude for students. The first-try passage rate in some states is between 70 percent and 90 percent, although the rate is lower in several states. Students, however, are allowed to take the exit exam more than once. White students and Asian students generally score significantly higher than Blacks and Hispanics on the tests. But some have suggested that the exit exams suffer from the same social biases that have plagued college admissions tests for decades.

“Test-makers try to make the tests neutral in content so that there is no bias in favor of more advantaged students, but, of course, poor students often are in schools which are not considered as good as those attended by more affluent students,” says Jack Jennings, president of CEP. “This week, the appellate court in California upheld the state’s right to have an exit exam but urged the political leaders to address the inequities facing students.”

Remediation courses have been just one of the points of contention for the exit exams. Currently, only 18 of the 25 states either administering or planning exit exams expect their districts to offer remediation for students who fail portions of the tests. According to CEP, California has tripled its spending on remediation during the past year, paying more than $57 million. Washington state plans to spend more than $28 million on remediation courses during the upcoming academic year. The state intends to begin withholding diplomas starting in 2008.

“States at the center of the exit exam controversy are those now beginning to withhold diplomas, and they are trying to help struggling students without weakening the integrity and purpose of the assessments,” Jennings says.

Most recently, Arizona, Maryland and Washington have created alternate routes for students hoping to earn a diploma, but struggling with passing exit exams. The states have given students the option to substitute scores from standardized college admissions exams like the SAT and ACT; take a different assessment; pursue a waiver or appeals process; receive exam credit utilizing course grades; or use another proof of proficiency.

California, however, permits no alternatives for its general education students, arguing that greater pliancy could diminish the objective of the exams.

“Alternatives to the state exit exams offer a way for otherwise qualified students to demonstrate their competence, even if they are not good test-takers. One size does not fit all,” says Robert Shaeffer of FairTest.

— By Lelita L. Cannon


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