High School Exit Exams Research Paper Starter

High School Exit Exams

High school exit exams are used to assess high school students' achievements as they near graduation. Though they were originally instituted as minimum competency exams, which were meant to ensure that students met minimum graduation requirements, today they have expanded to include end of course and standards based exams. With all of these exams, students must achieve or exceed minimum scores in order to graduate. Schools and school districts may offer students who do not initially pass the exams remedial courses, multiple retests, alternative testing, or the opportunity to prove their competencies through other means.

Keywords End of Course Exams; High-Stakes Testing; High School Exit Exams; Minimum Competency Exams; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB); Remediation; Standardized Testing; Standards-Based Exams



High school exit exams have been used in the United States in different forms since the 1970s. The exams are standardize tests intended to make a high school diploma more meaningful and assure employers and colleges that the recipient of a diploma has received the knowledge and skills necessary to obtain employment or attend higher education.

Types of Exit Exams

High school exit exams tend to fall into three basic categories:

• Minimum competency exams,

• Standards-based exams, and

• End-of-course exams,

Some state's exams overlap between categories.

Minimum competency exams define minimum levels of competence, evaluate students' basic skills, and are generally written at an eighth or ninth grade level of difficulty. Minimum competency exams are usually given during a specific period designated solely for testing, generally sometime in the spring, and can take up to a week to finish.

Standards-based exams are generally a more rigorous version of a minimum competency exam and cover advanced skills and knowledge, such as science and social studies, besides basic skills. These tests are also usually administered sometime during the spring and take up to a week to complete.

End-of-course exams, given at the end of a specific course, are intended to assess what students have learned in the course. They are different from minimum competency and standards-based exams, which are administered at a particular point in time regardless of when students learned the test material.


During the 1970s and 1980s, states began implementing minimum competency exams to evaluate students' basic skills in reading and mathematics. Since they were created under political pressure, they were more of a product of state policymakers and education reformers than of instructors and school administrators (Chudowsky, Kober, Gayler & Hamilton, 2002). Between 1973 and 1983, the number of states that implemented a statewide minimum competency exam increased from 2 to 34, but not every state made passing the exam a requirement for graduation (Linn, 2000, as cited in Chudowsky et al., 2002). During the 1990s, some states got rid of their minimum competency exams altogether or reformatted them the disguise of other standard exams (Chudowsky et al., 2002).

In 2002, of the eighteen states that had high school exit exams, ten states administered minimum competency exams, six states gave their students standards-based exams, one state used end-of-course exams, and one state offered both standards-based and end-of-course exams (Chudowsky et al., 2002). Currently, twenty-two states demand that their students pass a high school exit test or equivalent to earn their diploma (Olson, 2006).

In an attempt to make exit tests more severe and on par with state standards, by 2008 three states will use minimum competency exams, sixteen will use standards-based exams, and five will use end-of-course exams. However, some states explicitly state that their test content is aligned to the state's standard at a specified grade level when other states don’t, making it impossible to determine if exit exams are getting ore rigorous, less rigorous, or remaining the same (Chudowsky et al., 2002).

By the year 2012 twenty-five states will demand that students pass their exit exam before receiving a diploma. More than seven in ten of the country's public high school students and more than eight in ten of the nation's minority public high school students will be affected by these exams (Olson, 2006).

Exit Exam Content

Despite the growing prevalence of exit exams, not all exams are the same. Though every state exam contains English/language arts content, this content can be called by different terms and can variously include or exclude test items evaluating writing, reading, and communication abilities as well as literary knowledge. In 2002, only 39% of the states' exams demanded that students pass science and social studies exams (Chudowsky et al., 2002). Content homogeneity is increasing, however. By 2012, 76% of states will require students to pass science tests, and 52% will require their students to pass tests in social studies (Olson, 2006).

All states use at least some multiple-choice questions on their high school exit exams, primarily because they are the cheapest types of test to administer and the easiest to score. Multiple-choice questions also allow students to answer quickly; therefore, a test can include many questions covering a variety of topics. Only a few states' tests, however, are made up completely of multiple-choice questions, and most are minimum competency exams that are being phased out. By 2008, 63 percent of the states using a high school exit exam will include some short answer questions, and 92 percent of the states will have writing prompts. Short answer questions may require students to complete short-answers, charts, graphs, and fill-in-the-blanks. Writing prompts require students to answer a question in an open-ended manner by utilizing their reasoning and persuasive writing skills. Students are usually required to complete one or more written essays that could be narrative, informational, or persuasive. These essays are then assessed and graded by at least two trained readers who evaluate them on content, organization, style, sentence structure, and grammar (Chudowsky et al., 2002).


Administering the Tests

Most states begin administering exit exams in the tenth grade, though some begin as early as the eighth grade or as late at the eleventh. States tend to begin testing early so that students will have plenty of opportunities to retest and go through remediation before graduation. States which delay testing do so under the belief that students will have been exposed to and learned more of the test material by the later half of high school. States which use end-of-course exams as high school exit exams naturally administer them whenever students have completed the corresponding courses.

Students taking retests are typically given a parallel version of the original with slightly different questions. States allow students anywhere between two and eleven retesting opportunities; some even allow students continue retesting even after they leave high school, up until they reach the age of twenty-one (Chudowsky et al., 2002). States are also implementing new options for students who cannot pass the exit exam after more than one attempt. Depending on the state, students can substitute SAT, ACT, or Advanced Placement scores; pass an alternative assessment; pursue a waiver or appeals process; substitute a course grade; or complete some combination of these options.

Both students with disabilities and English language learners typically pass high school exit exams at a lower rate than other students (Olson, 2006). Students with disabilities often have their exam requirement delayed or waived altogether; English language learners may also receive some type of testing accommodation or be exempted. By 2008, 22 states will offer accommodations to students with disabilities. Five states will offer exemptions for these students, and nine will provide alternative assessments. All states using high school exit exams require that students who have English as a second language must meet the same pass requirements as other, English-speaking students. By 2008, 18 states will offer accommodations to English language learners, and five states will translate the exit exam-with the exception of the English/language arts subtests-into other languages (Chudowsky et al., 2002).

Challenges in Implementing Exit Exams

Implementing exit exams can be difficult. States must be sure that

• Cutoff scores realistically describe what students need to know to succeed after graduation


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