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Raising the Bar and Reducing Failure on State-Mandated Exit Exams

by Stuart S. Yeh - January 28, 2008

A majority of students will soon be subject to exit exams that require knowledge of high school subjects such as algebra and geometry, despite evidence from employers that these topics are frequently unrelated to occupational requirements. A variety of evidence suggests that an alternative approach, involving exit exams that reward each level of student achievement with a corresponding diploma option, is more likely to promote high educational standards and improve student achievement without excessive failure rates.

By the year 2012, twenty-six states will require students to pass a state test in order to graduate from high school; this requirement will affect 72% of students nationwide (Center on Education Policy, 2007b). These policies have been adopted in an effort to make the link between effort and achievement abundantly clear. The high school exit exams that are in the process of being implemented will require mastery of material at the high school level at a much higher level than the previous generation of minimum competency exit exams (Center on Education Policy, 2005, 2006, 2007b). However, it appears that a significant portion of the material covered on the exams may be unrelated to job requirements for occupations that graduates are likely to seek. Furthermore, wide variation in passing rates across states, especially for minority students, suggests that differences in test content have consequential effects for students. In math, for example, initial passing rates across eight states ranged from 33% to 86% for African-American students and 46% to 89% for Hispanic students (Center on Education Policy, 2007b).

To illustrate, a review of Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) exit exam concluded that the test requires knowledge of advanced algebra, trigonometry, analytic geometry, probability and statistics, and is “an examination so difficult that only a minority of college graduates could pass it” (Glass, 2003, p. 1). A range of Arizona employers were asked to review representative items from the test. Ninety percent of the employers reported that they did not require, and their employees did not use, such skills in their daily work (Glass, 2003; Glass & Edholm, 2002)—suggesting that the test was not well-aligned with the skills and knowledge needed outside school.

To reduce failure rates, passing scores were lowered and letter grades were factored into scores (Center on Education Policy, 2007a). By the 2006-2007 school year, only 525 of a total of 82,000 seniors failed to graduate because they failed AIMS (Center on Education Policy, 2007a). However, the use of course grades to augment test scores will end with the senior class graduating in Spring, 2008. Based on the number of students who failed to pass AIMS in 2007, approximately 3,950 Arizona students are likely to be denied a diploma in 2008.

In a majority of states that are implementing exit exams, the stated purposes are to assess students’ mastery of the state-mandated curriculum, to inform policy, to identify students at-risk for failure, to promote alignment of curriculum and instruction, to promote equity of opportunity, and to provide diagnostic information (Center on Education Policy, 2007b). However, none of these objectives are served by denying diplomas to students. Since earnings strongly depend on receipt of a diploma (Cameron & Heckman, 1993; Murnane, Willett, & Tyler, 2000), perhaps the only valid purpose of using an exit exam to deny diplomas and associated economic opportunities would be to signal students, teachers and potential employers that students who fail the exam lack basic skills necessary in a wide range of occupations. If the vast majority of occupations do not require knowledge of algebra and geometry, it seems inappropriate to deny diplomas to students who do not know algebra and geometry.

This issue is separable from the desirability of promoting student achievement beyond the exit level. It may be desirable that students have the analytical abilities required to solve advanced algebra and trigonometry problems, but it is not an appropriate use of exit exams to deny diplomas to students who lack those skills. Research suggests that the use of a dual testing system with high-standards grade-level exams, such as the exams used in Minnesota (Yeh, 2006), in combination with exit exams that reward high and low levels of student achievement with corresponding diploma options, is better suited to the task of motivating all students to strive for high levels of achievement beyond the exit level (Bishop, 1998; Bishop, Mane, Bishop, & Moriarty, 2001).

In New York, for example, students who pass five Regents exams with a score of 65 or above receive a prestigious Regents Diploma, while students who are unable to meet that standard but are able to pass five exams with a score of 55 or above are eligible to receive a local diploma (State Education Department, 2008). This type of system provides a high standard to aim for, and a prestigious reward for those who achieve that standard, yet avoids denying diplomas to large numbers of students who possess basic skills but not knowledge of algebra and geometry. Students who are able to demonstrate mastery of subjects such as algebra and geometry are rewarded for their advanced performance, but mastery of those subjects is not required to obtain a diploma.

Bishop (1998) analyzed the effects of curriculum-based external exit examination systems, which are exit exam systems that signal multiple levels of achievement. Bishop notes that this feature significantly changes the incentive effects of exit exams. Minimum competency exams only motivate low-achieving students to work harder, since higher-achieving students pass easily. In contrast, exit exam systems that reward students at every level of achievement potentially motivate all students to work harder. After analyzing data from the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), the International Assessment of Educational Progress, and New York’s Regents examination system, Bishop concluded that multiple diploma systems and other systems that signal multiple levels of achievement significantly improve student achievement and maintain high educational standards: “The policy that clearly has the biggest effects on test scores is the hybrid end-of-course/minimum competency exam system that has been in place in New York state since the early 1980s and in North Carolina since about 1991” (Bishop et al., 2001, p. 310).

Thus, a system with multiple levels of incentives that correspond to multiple levels of achievement in a heterogeneous student population is more likely to motivate students at all levels, compared to an exit exam with a single level of difficulty, and is more effective in improving student achievement. The multiple diploma approach would counteract pressure to “dumb down” the curriculum since teachers are expected to prepare students at high, as well as low, levels of achievement. In addition, a multiple diploma system would clearly distinguish high and low levels of achievement, unlike single diploma systems, serving to restore the meaning of high school diplomas.

If minimum competency tests cause teachers to dumb down the curriculum, while exit exams such as AIMS result in high failure rates and negate the benefits of high-stakes testing, there is a need for exit exam systems that reward high levels of performance without causing excessive failures. Single-level exit exam systems are inherently unable to fulfill this role. There is a need for multiple-level tests and multiple diploma options so that students who pass a minimum competency exam may obtain a regular diploma, yet all students strive to reach the higher standards signaled by more prestigious diplomas. This type of system would provide the motivational incentives that are desired, while minimizing the harm of single-level exit exams. In response, the U.S. Department of Education argues that federal law does not permit states to use differentiated exam systems to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (Trotter, 2003; U.S. Department of Education, 2002a, 2002b). However, it appears that the use of a differentiated exam system is consistent with the spirit as well as the language of the law, suggesting that the Department could change its policy if desired (Yeh, in press).

Alternatives to a multiple diploma system include setting a low initial passing score that is raised over time, or putting off the effective date of an exit exam until more students achieve at a high level. However, neither of these alternatives will avoid situations where students who possess basic competencies and are equipped for a wide range of occupations are denied diplomas because they do not meet the higher standard. These alternatives fail to address the fundamental inequity involved in denying a diploma to students who may otherwise be equipped with the skills needed for their chosen occupations.

Multiple diploma options would provide appropriate incentives for all students and teachers to aim for high-standards—without denying diplomas to students who do not possess knowledge of algebra and geometry and are not planning to enter the minority of occupations where that knowledge is required. This relatively simple change in policy addresses problems with the use of one-size-fits-all tests and could help to restore the balance between equity and accountability in high-stakes testing.


Bishop, J. (1998). Do curriculum-based external exit exam systems enhance student achievement? (CPRE Research Report Series RR-40). Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in Education, University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education.

Bishop, J. H., Mane, F., Bishop, M., & Moriarty, J. (2001). The role of end-of-course exams and minimum competency exams in standards-based reforms. In D. Ravitch (Ed.), Brookings papers on education policy (pp. 267-345). Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Cameron, S. V., & Heckman, J. J. (1993). Determinants of young male schooling and training choices (NBER Working Papers No. 4327). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Center on Education Policy. (2005). High school exit exams: Basic features (Exit Exams Policy Brief No. 1). Washington, D.C.: Center on Education Policy.

Center on Education Policy. (2006). State high school exit exams: A challenging year. Washington, D.C.

Center on Education Policy. (2007a). Caught in the middle: Arizona's English language learners and the high school exit exam. Washington, DC: Center on Education Policy.

Center on Education Policy. (2007b). State high school exit exams: Working to raise test scores. Washington, DC: Center on Education Policy.

Glass, G. V. (2003). High-stakes AIMS is a brutal test that hurts the students. Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University, Education Policy Research Unit.

Glass, G. V., & Edholm, C. A. (2002). The AIMS test and the mathematics actually used by Arizona employees (No. EPSL-0209-119 EPRU). Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University.

Murnane, R. J., Willett, J. B., & Tyler, J. H. (2000). Who benefits from obtaining a GED? Evidence from High School and Beyond. Review of Economics and Statistics, 82(1), 23-37.

State Education Department. (2008). Diploma requirements: Section 100.5. Retrieved January 3, 2008, from http://www.emsc.nysed.gov/part100/pages/1005a.html

Trotter, A. (2003, May 8). A question of direction. Education Week, 22, 17-18, 20-21.

U.S. Department of Education. (2002a). Public Law 107–110, 107th Congress: An Act to close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice, so that no child is left behind. Retrieved October 1, 2007, from http://www.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/esea02/107-110.pdf

U.S. Department of Education. (2002b). Title I—Improving the academic achievement of the disadvantaged: Final rule. Retrieved October 1, 2007, from http://www.ed.gov/legislation/FedRegister/finrule/2002-3/070502a.pdf

Yeh, S. S. (2006). Raising student achievement through rapid assessment and test reform. New York: Teachers College Press.

Yeh, S. S. (in press). High stakes testing and students with disabilities: Why federal policy needs to be changed. In E. Grigorenko (Ed.), Educating individuals with disabilities: IDEIA 2004 and beyond. New York: Springer.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 28, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14939, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 6:50:19 PM

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About the Author
  • Stuart Yeh
    University of Minnesota
    E-mail Author
    STUART YEH is Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Policy and Administration at the University of Minnesota. His research focuses on improved ways of designing assessment and accountability systems. His book, Raising Student Achievement Through Rapid Assessment and Test Reform (Teachers College Press, 2006), recommends changes in federal, state, and district level testing policies.
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