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The positive effects of exit exams
By Jay P. Greene and Marcus A. Winters
Indiana, like 23 other states, requires students to pass a state test before they can receive their high school diplomas. Opponents of Indiana's test, the Graduation Qualifying Exam, argue that requiring students to pass an "exit exam" forces already low graduation rates even lower. Such critics should look at the facts. Recent evidence suggests that exit exams don't actually increase dropout rates.
A new study by the Manhattan Institute finds that high school exit exams such as the GQE have no effect on graduation rates. The study measured graduation rates in each state over the past decade and examined whether states that implemented exit exams experienced a drop in graduation rates relative to states that didn't. The results of the analysis showed no relationship between exit exam requirements and graduation rates.
This study is only the most recent of several analyses showing that exit exams do not lead to higher dropout rates. Most prominently, researchers at Stanford University recently found that implementing exit exams has no effect on student retention in high school. The evidence indicates that the popular idea that the GQE pushes students out of high school is mostly a myth.
Certainly it seems counterintuitive that the GQE would not affect graduation rates. One could point to the numerous media reports every year profiling students who would graduate if only they could pass the test. But policy-makers should focus on the total body of available evidence, not intuitions or anecdotal reports.
First, many of the students who don't pass exit exams would have failed to graduate anyway. For example, in Florida, home of one of the nation's most difficult exit exams, state officials estimated that about 40 percent of the seniors in the class of 2003 who could not pass the state's exit exam had also not completed the necessary coursework to receive a diploma.
Furthermore, the number of students who truly cannot pass exit exams is probably quite small. An analysis by the Fordham Foundation found that most exit exams actually require surprisingly low levels of proficiency. In most states students are routinely given second, third and even seventh chances to pass exit exams before they are finally denied a diploma. Between each administration of the test, students who have failed are provided with extra help specifically designed to get them past the test requirement. Given so many tries, eventually most students who are able to complete the other requirements to graduate also pass the exit exam, even if only by chance.
Still, there are at least some students who cannot pass the GQE. So why is there no decrease in graduation rates? Exit exams force schools to focus their time and resources on low-achieving students they previously ignored. This improved use of resources causes some students to earn their diplomas who otherwise would have dropped out. Since research consistently finds no relationship between exit exams and graduation rates, the number of students positively affected by these exams appears to be roughly equal to the number of students who fail to graduate because they cannot pass.
Indiana might support the GQE even if it did lower graduation rates, in order to protect the value of its high school diplomas. Requiring students to demonstrate proficiency in order to graduate should protect the quality of their diplomas in the labor market. Fortunately, the evidence suggests that Indiana doesn't have to choose between awarding more diplomas and awarding higher quality diplomas. Research shows that implementing an exit exam allows Indiana to give higher quality diplomas to the same number of students as before.
Greene is a senior fellow and Winters is a research associate at the Manhattan Institute's Education Research Office.
©2004 The Indianapolis Star
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