Do Exit Exams Show Kids the Door?

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.

The state has been moving to implement the requirement since 1999, but an independent external evaluation found that "many students, for different reasons, may not have benefited from courses of initial and remedial instruction to master the required standards," according to a statement released by the board.

The evaluation projected that as much as 20 percent of the state's students would not be able to pass the test in time to graduate.

"Despite the real progress that has taken place, we want to give our reforms more time to work for more students before requiring the exit exam as a condition of high school graduation," Board of Education President Reed Hastings said.

Studying Problems

Other states have also had problems with their exams:

In New York, the results of the math portion of the exit exam were annulled in 2003 because of low passing rates, and schools were allowed to issue diplomas to students who failed.

Florida allowed students who failed its test to substitute SAT scores as a condition of graduation.

Both Arizona and Alaska decided last year to postpone requiring students to pass exit exams.

When only 36 percent of the students in Nevada passed the math portion of the test, the state decided to lower the passing score to let more children graduate.

Poor results on practice tests in Texas prompted officials there to implement a gradual rise in the passing score on the state's exit exam, which is scheduled to become a requirement in 2005.

School administrators say that such setbacks are to be expected whenever such an ambitious program as instituting statewide standards testing is implemented.

"The exit exam is here to stay," California's Hastings said. "It will remain in place as an important gauge of student achievement and as a means of identifying and eradicating educational disparities. Our mantra must be educate, remediate and educate some more."

Shifting Perspective

The problems around the country have coincided with a change in attitude toward exit exams, according to a Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll. Phi Delta Kappa is a national association of teachers.

According to the poll, more than seven in 10 people do not believe that a single test is an accurate measure of a child's ability in math or English, and nearly as many fear that implementing high-stakes testing regimes such as exit exams will lead to "teaching to the test."

If the poll is a fair reflection of popular opinion, that is a change from the 1980s and 1990s, when the implementations of more tests to assess student and school performance seemed to have broad popular support.

The question of how to assess how much and how well students were learning has been an issue ever since the founding of public schools in America, but a 1983 government report, "A Nation At Risk," spurred a new focus on taking steps to improve schools.

In 1992, the National Council on Standards and Testing, which was established by Congress, released a report recommending the establishment of national content standards — though not a national curriculum — and national assessment testing.

Alongside this movement at the federal level, more states began to move in the same direction, adding a statewide standard for graduation — exit exams — on top of the course work requirements.

Focus on the Need to Know

Keith Gayler, one of the researchers who carried out the Center for Education Policy study, said that he found both positive and negative signs in the examination of the effects of exit exams over the past year.

Schools seem to be adapting as the results of previous years' tests are being analyzed, so that more focus is being put on subject areas where children have the most problems.

"Schools are paying attention to making sure children learn the basics they need to know," he said.

Though he said he believes that it is a positive development for states to require exit exams, Moe said there is not yet solid evidence of whether the tests have had an effect on student performance.

Passing rates have increased in most states where they are required, but he said that could be just because teachers and students are becoming more familiar with the makeup of the tests, not that they are learning more.

The Center for Education Policy report cited a December 2002 study by two Arizona State University researchers who found "inadequate evidence" to say whether students were actually improving their academic performance in states with exit exams as compared to states without.

In "The Impact of High Stakes Tests on Student Academic Performance," Audrey Amrein and David Berliner compared the change in performance on national assessment tests such as the National Assessment of Education Progress, the ACT and SAT of students in states with exit exams and in states without.

They found that the changes seemed to be random — in some states students improved as compared to the national average and in others they did worse.

Creating Dropouts?

But the research seemed to confirm what critics have said about increased rates of dropouts and so-called "push-outs," cases when poor-performing students are allegedly either counseled to leave school, ostensibly to focus on taking high school equivalency tests, or are intentionally discouraged by being repeatedly failed in the years before they would be required to take assessment tests.

"It looks like these exams may be causing dropouts, and this is really serious, because dropouts have a much harder time throughout their lifetime," Gayler said. "If states can be be sure to put money behind these reforms, maybe this trend can be reversed."

An increase in the number of children dropping out is to be expected as tougher standards are instituted at schools, the Hoover Institution's Moe said, though he added that the evidence is inconclusive on whether more children are dropping out in states with exit exams.

"I think it's reasonable to expect they would increase the dropout rate to some extent, unless the schools do something to prevent it," Moe said. "I think it's a built-in problem that the more you expect of kids, the more kids are going to drop out."

In Massachusetts, where 93 percent of the state's students passed the 2003 exit exam, statewide programs are in place to reinforce in children the value of a high school diploma, even for kids who are not planning on going to college, said Kimberly Beck, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

She said the program has been very successful, but admitted that the state budget for it has been cut from $50 million to $10 million.

Orlinsky, the Warren High science teacher, said there is no similar statewide program in California, but that many districts — including the one where he teaches — have their own counseling programs to encourage kids who are failing to work harder and stay in school.

What Is Measured?

There is strong evidence, though, that different people test differently, critics of the reliance on tests say, and they while the tests might be good tools for certain kinds of assessment, they are not always the best way to judge how much a student has learned.

So some children who are passing their classes, or even doing well in school, might still might do poorly on assessment tests.

"Typically grades do correlate to test scores, but they don't correlate perfectly," Sacks said. "You could have 10 to 20 percent falling into that category [who pass their classes but fail the tests]. There is an extremely powerful correlation between performance on the standardized tests and socioeconomic factors. The tests are better predictors of the ZIP code a kid lives in than they are of a kid's performance in school."

Research shows that females generally do relatively better than males in their grades than their test scores would indicate, and blacks also do relatively better in classes than tests when compared to whites, said Walter Haney, a professor in Boston College's School of Education and a senior research associate at the school's Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation and Educational Policy.

He said there are different theories about why this might be true, including that blacks perform better in school than on tests because they generally go to poorer schools than whites, and so do not face standards as high as those faced by most white students. This does not explain the differences between how boys and girls test, or the differences between how Asians and other ethnic groups test, though, he said.

A Holistic Approach

Groups like the Massachusetts Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education, an organization of teachers and parents, say that a holistic approach would be a better way to assess whether a student is achieving academic goals.

Rather than putting all students through standardized tests, "richer, more complex types of assessment" such as student portfolios, classroom-based tests and teacher assessments would give a "much more fair and accurate" picture of what a student has learned, said MassCARE statewide coordinator Jackie King.

"Standardized tests are a very broad, blunt instrument," she said. "They're a single snapshot of how a student responds to certain questions on a certain day and on a certain subject.

"We think it is deeply unfair for a single test to determine a child's future," King added. "School systems and states should use multiple forms of assessment to do that."

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