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High school exit testing in the age of “college and career readiness”

High school exit tests are the trapdoors of the education world. These are the tests that tie scores to high school diplomas and push students who miss the mark out of school into the streets, the unemployment lines, and the prisons.

A national uprising has highlighted the many ways the misuse and overuse of standardized testing hurts students. Now the effort to end high school exit testing may be its next step.

In the last few years, 10 states have repealed or delayed high school exit exams. California, Georgia, South Carolina, and Arizona even decided to issue diplomas retroactively to thousands of students denied them due to scores on discontinued tests. Although 13 states still use exit testing for diplomas and policies are in flux in several others, the number is down from a high of 27 states during the testing craze promoted by No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

There are several reasons for this retreat, including the research on exit testing, which clearly shows that exit tests don’t help the students who pass and hurt the students who don’t. They increase dropout rates and incarceration rates without improving college participation, college completion levels, or economic prospects for graduates in states that have them.

A 2014 report by the Gates-funded New America institute, The Case Against Exit Exams , declared, “New evidence has reinforced the conclusion that exit exams disproportionately affect a subset of students, without producing positive outcomes for most.” It found that “rigorous” exit testing was associated with lower graduation rates, had no positive effects on labor market outcomes, and, most alarmingly, produced a 12.5 percent increase in incarceration rates. Exit exams, the study concluded, “have tended to add little value for most students but have imposed costs on already at-risk ones.”

The introduction of the new, harder Common Core (CCSS) tests and the contradictions behind “college for all” rhetoric have been another factor. Even supporters of these new tests have acknowledged that using them as exit exams would produce dramatically negative effects. A report from the Carnegie Corporation predicted that, without an unprecedented increase 
in educational supports for high 
school youth, the implementation of “college and career ready” 
tests as diploma requirements 
would cause the national high
 school graduation rate to plummet from more than 75 percent to the low 50 percent range. “As a political matter, it will be difficult for supporters of CCSS, already under attack from various corners, to sustain a system in which large numbers of students are denied diplomas,” said researcher Richard Kahlenberg.

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