From Education Week [American Education's Newspaper of Record],
Wednesday, October 3, 2012,
Volume 32, Issue 6, pages 1,19. See
Exit Exams Face Pinch in Common-Core Push
By Andrew Ujifusa
With many states crafting assessments based on the common-core
standards-and an increasing emphasis on college and career readiness
- some are rethinking the kind of tests high school students must
pass to graduate, or whether to use such exit exams at all.
Twenty-five states, enrolling a total of 34.1 million students, make
exit exams a graduation requirement, according to a study
released last month by the Center on Education Policy, a
Washington-based think tank. That represents 69 percent of the
nation's K-12 enrollment. And that's grown over the past decade: In
2003, 19 states representing 52 percent of U.S. enrollment had such
But now states including Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey,
and Rhode Island plan to use new common-core-aligned tests as exit
exams in some form once those tests are fully implemented in 2014-15.
Other states are less certain about their plans for the assessments
being developed as part of the common-standards push.
Exit exams have grown more prevalent over the past decade, due in
part to advocacy from the business community for assessments that can
better measure whether students will be ready for the labor force and
therefore ensure the value of a high school diploma.
Many of today's exit exams, however, are seen as significantly
less rigorous than the common-core tests being produced by two
consortia, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and
Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.
"They're really at a crossroads at this point," Shelby
McIntosh, the author of the CEP study, said of exit exams, which the
group defines as state-mandated tests, including end-of-course tests,
that students must pass-not just take-to graduate.
The Common Core State Standards were sponsored by the National
Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School
Officers. PARCC has 23 member states while Smarter Balanced
has 25, although some states belong to both consortia, which are
crafting the assessments in math and English/language arts aligned
with those standards, with the help of $360 million in federal
Because of federal rules connected to that funding, states adopting
the tests will be required to use them for school, district, and
state-level accountability, as well as for teacher evaluations. But
they will not be required to use them as high-stakes tests for
individual students. That decision will be up to individual
"They have to hit the right balance between making it more
rigorous and making it acceptable," said Brian Gong, the
executive director of the Dover, N.H.-based National Center for the
Improvement of Educational Assessment, which has provided technical
assistance to PARCC and Smarter Balanced.
Rhode Island has not yet implemented an exit-exam requirement, but
plans to adopt the common-core tests for that purpose starting with
the class of 2016.
The state set itself on that path in 2008, said David Abbott, Rhode
Island's acting education commissioner. That year, the state board of
regents decided that, in order to graduate from high school in 2014,
students would have to pass the New England Common Assessment Program,
or NECAP, adopted in 2005 by New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
(In Rhode Island, the NECAP is administered in reading, writing, math,
and science, although only the reading and math scores are part of the
state's diploma system.)
Whatever the federal rules and rigor surrounding them, Mr. Abbott
said, state officials feel comfortable using common-core tests as
"Very early on, that was one of the assurances that we and
several other states needed, that we need to develop as a consortium a
test that can be used for that purpose," said Mr. Abbott. The
state is part of the PARCC consortium.
He acknowledged that there would be a transition period, since the new
tests will be administered on a different schedule from the NCAP and
will have different proficiency levels. Still, he said, the benefits
would outweigh those complications.
Florida this year implemented end-of-course tests in reading and
mathematics that students must pass in order to graduate. Those tests
will make way for the PARCC-devised assessments in math and
English/language arts in 2014-15. The state education department plans
to require students to pass the PARCC tests to graduate, although the
decision is subject to oversight by state lawmakers and the state
school board. (Other end-of-course tests in civics and biology, for
example, will remain.)
Vince Verges, the state's PARCC implementation director, highlighted
the fact that the tests could mean different things for students in
For example, if the PARCC tests have five proficiency levels, Florida
could decide that students scoring at the two highest levels could be
labeled "college ready" in those subjects. Students scoring
in the middle level, meanwhile, could be allowed to satisfy the
graduation requirement for a particular course, but miss out on the
college- and career-ready designation.
"When it comes to high school graduation, that will be a
state-by-state decision," Mr. Verges said.
In a radio interview last week, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a
Republican, said, "PARCC will make sure we're not teaching to a
test," pointing out that the assessments would be
"diagnostic" for students, the Miami Herald
But the use of newer, more-rigorous tests as graduation requirements
could have an especially negative impact on minority students, said
Robert Rothman, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Alliance for
Excellent Education, which advocates high school policies that promote
college and career success.
"These standards are, in many cases, higher than existing
state standards, particularly with exit exams, which were
traditionally pegged to lower standards than other state tests,"
Mr. Rothman said.
Passing rates on students' first attempts on exit exams across
various states tend to be well above 50 percent. In Minnesota, for
example, 80 percent of students passed the exit exam in reading on
their first attempt in the 2011-12 school, CEP reports, and 92 percent
did so on the writing test. However, the first-attempt passing rate in
math was only 58 percent.
Georgia is phasing out its comprehensive exit exam in favor of
end-of-course tests, and students who started high school in the
2011-12 school year won't have to pass the exit exam (the Georgia High
School Graduation Test) to graduate. However, they will still be
required to pass the state's high school writing test.
But the PARCC exams will be used as end-of-course tests in
English/language arts and math when the assessments become available,
and each exam will count for 20 percent of a student's course
Similar to Florida's plan, scoring at high proficiency levels will
allow students to avoid remediation in Georgia' state university and
Georgia has always understood that the common-core assessments were to
be designed as end-of-course exams, said Melissa Fincher, the state
education department's testing director.
"We will have students that do not pass the course as a result,"
Ms. Fincher said. "The increased rigor is absolutely a concern.
But that didn't influence our decision not to use it as an exit
Alabama is also eliminating exit exams (the class of 2015will be
the last to take them). Its upcoming end-of-course tests for 8th
graders and high school students will be based on the ACT
QualityCore program, not the common-core assessments, and won't
count toward students' final grades.
"The [common-core] assessments seemed too far out in the future
and with too many elements of the unknown for us," said Sherrill
Parris, the deputy superintendent of public instruction, although the
state will implement the common-core math standards this year and the
English/language-arts standards in the 2013-14 school year.
"We've separated our assessment work from the accountability
work," she said.
On the Fence
Some states haven't decided whether to use the common-core tests
for graduation purposes.
In California, for example, schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson is
set to deliver his recommendations to the state legislature this fall
on how those exams should be used.
Students in the class of 2015 and beyond in Washington state will have
to pass five exams - including three end-of-course ones-to
graduate, while students in previous classes must pass three,
including one end-of-course test, said state department spokesman
Nathan Olson. State legislators are to decide next year whether
students must also pass the two Smarter Balanced tests to
The CEP study reports that 14 states allow students to take modified
or alternative exit exams, while eight allow for students to earn
alternative diplomas, although those are not always equivalent to
SIDEBAR: Setting the Bar
--- States vary on whether students must pass an
end-of-course or exit exam to graduate from high school. See map at
website. SOURCE: Center on Education Policy
Coverage of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards
and the common assessments is supported in part by a grant from the GE
Foundation, at www.ge.com/foundation
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244