Do Exit Exams Show Kids the Door?

ByABC News
August 29, 2003, 10:08 AM

Sept. 9, 2003 -- -- Jeff Orlinsky knows what he doesn't want to see in his 10th-grade biology class students with no motivation to even try to pass the class, because they already feel there is no way they can graduate from high school.

The science teacher at Warren High School in Downey, Calif., fears that could be the effect when the state makes passing standardized tests in mathematics and language arts a graduation requirement.

"I don't see them coming into my class with a lot of enthusiasm, because they can still do well in my class, they can pass my test, but they still wouldn't be able to get their diploma," he said.

Orlinsky's concern has become an issue nationwide, as more and more states move toward requiring that every student pass a standard statewide test on top of their regular class requirements in order to graduate.

The shift toward more standardized testing is seen not only in exit exams, the tests currently given in 19 states that high school students must pass in order to graduate, but also in the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, which judges schools on the basis of annual statewide test scores.

Critics of the move say that there is already evidence that children particularly minority and poor children are dropping out or being pushed out of schools as a result of emphasis on high-stakes testing.

"It tends to lead to figuring out other ways to get high scores, ways that have nothing to do with the skills involved," said Deborah Meier, co-principal of the Mission Hill School, a kindergarten-though-eighth-grade pilot school in Boston, and author of In Schools We Trust. "There's an enormous amount going on of schools finding ways to push kids out in ways that won't show up on the test."

That is a problem that schools and children don't need to face, the critics say, because a single test is a poor way of doing what the tests are supposed to do assess a child's performance and predict how he or she will do in the future.

"With these tests, we're saying one's performance on a two- or three-hour test tells us more about a person's performance than the performance itself," said Peter Sacks, the author of Standardized Minds.

But if the standards of performance in class work are not high enough, then they have no real meaning and that's why exit exams have become necessary, supporters of such exams say.

"The impulse is right, requiring that kids know something, not just handing out diplomas," said Terry Moe, a senior fellow with the Hoover Institution, a research organization at Stanford University.

Spreading Standards

More than 50 percent of the schoolchildren in the United States already must take exit exams to graduate, and that number is expected to rise to roughly 70 percent by 2008, as five more states add exit exam requirements, according to a recent report released by the Center for Education Policy, a Washington-based independent advocate for public education.

California had planned to require that the students of the class of 2004 be required to pass the California High School Exit Exam. Because of the high number of students who had failed to pass the test, though, the state Board of Education this summer decided to delay the requirement for two years.