Many graduating high school seniors aren't prepared for college, with the ACT reporting that only 25 percent of 2011 high school graduates met all four of the test's college readiness benchmarks. Inadequate writing, reading or math skills can also affect students' ability to excel in their careers, and many high schools have responded to this problem by creating graduation tests. Students who can't demonstrate basic high school skills on these tests won't be allowed to graduate and might have to take summer school classes or get help from a tutor.
Exit exams ensure that every student in a school or school district takes the same test under the same circumstances. This may provide a more objective evaluation of what a student has learned, since grades are partially subjective and may be based as much on a student's ability to work as they are on her actual knowledge. However, these exams can also fail to fairly evaluate student achievement, and may contain subtle biases. A 2009 Stanford University study, for example, found racial and gender biases in a California high school exit exam.
Exit exams can serve as a measure of teacher and school performance, and scores are often published, allowing parents to review score differences between schools and school systems. This can provide schools with helpful feedback on whether their educational policies are working. Exit exams don't provide a complete picture of teacher performance, though. Teachers working with troubled or low-income students may significantly improve their students' knowledge during a school year, but might not be able to improve student performance enough to enable students to pass the test. Consequently, looking solely at passage rates might provide misleading information.
As more and more schools require a variety of standardized tests, many teachers tailor their lesson plans to the tests rather than to the textbook or generalized academic goals. While this might seem like it encourages teachers to teach useful skills, it can also cause teachers to rush through material that is not on the test, limiting the knowledge of graduating seniors.
Pressure to Perform
When students' graduation is contingent upon a high test score, the pressure can be overwhelming. Some students suffer from test anxiety, and pressure can actually lower the scores of these students. Teachers are also under massive pressure, and both teachers and students might turn to cheating if they don't think it's possible to pass the test. At Louisiana's Carver High School, for example, two school administrators were suspended on suspicion of cheating on an exit exam in 2010. The administrators were accused of giving students a study guide that revealed test questions.
- Education Commission of the States: High School Exit Exams Pros and Cons
- The Times Picayune: 2 Carver High School Administrators Suspended Amid Allegations of Exit Exam Cheating
- Stanford News Service: California High School Exit Exam Gets a Failing Grade in Stanford Study
- Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching: Teaching to the Test
Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.