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No Exit with Exit Exam

More and more states in the US are adopting high school exit exams to ascertain that their students are adequately prepared for whatever comes after graduation.

Studies have shown however that while some students have risen to the occasion, many are unable to meet the standards set by their schools. Many are concerned that after four grueling years in high school, and thousands of dollars spent, some students will still be denied a diploma.

What causes more concern is the apparent disparity in the number of minority students who fail the exams. Many low-income and minority students are, according to the Center on Education Policy, more likely to fail the exams. A gap of forty percentage points between the pass rates of white and black students have likewise been observed.

Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus at Stanford University is not surprised by the result. “One should not be surprised then that these tests reflect the larger socioeconomic picture of low-income and low-income minority students not graduating in the same percentages as middle income and middle-income white students.”

Questions on the relevance of the exit exams persist, despite the increasing number of states which hold the said exam. This year, some twenty states are already holding mandatory state exit exams and the number is expected to increase to 26 in three years.

Experts have suggested that the difficulty level should be adjusted so that the exams are challenging enough to be meaningful but not exceedingly difficult as to prevent students from getting their diplomas.

The difficulty level of exit exams in some states is not uniformed. Some assess basic math and reading skills while others measure in-depth subject knowledge and skills.

In 2005, responding to widespread opposition, California’s Board of Education postponed the requirement of exit exams in order for students to graduate from high school. Student advocates have argued that students, particularly those who attend schools in poor neighborhoods, often lack trained teachers and adequate textbooks and are being tested on material they were never taught.

Last May, an Alameda County Superior Court judge even ruled that many students had not had an equal opportunity to learn the material being tested; however, that decision has now been effectively overturned.

The California Court of Appeal has recently issued a ruling that upholds the controversial California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) for the class of 2006. The Court of Appeal panel wrote in its ruling, “the skills tested on the CAHSEE are neither esoteric nor highly advanced.''

Many fear that this ruling would only push California’s graduation rates downward. The board is now tackling research on the dropout rates allegedly caused by the exams.

Then again, a study by the Manhattan Institute shows that adopting high school exit exams will not have an effect on graduation rates. The research involved a measurement of graduation rates in each state over the last ten years. The result of the analysis showed no relationship between exit exam requirements and graduation rates.

Many of the students who do not pass exit exams, according to researchers, would not have graduated anyway. In Florida where the exams are reportedly the most difficult, state officials estimated that some 40 percent of the seniors of class 2003 who were unable to pass the state’s exit exam was also unable to complete the necessary course work to receive a diploma.

Researchers at Stanford have likewise found that holding exit exams do not lead to higher dropout rates. According to its researchers, the idea that exit exams prompt students to leave high school is nothing but a myth.

California has nevertheless reiterated that it will continue to support the exit exam even if it did lower graduation rates. This is to ensure that high school diplomas are given higher accord so that only those exhibiting proficiency will be able to receive it.

About the Author: Michael Mitchell has written widely on Exams and Education. Visit his website for more information about High School Exit Exams and how to prepare.

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