Kansas high school graduates march across the stage to receive their diplomas based on having passed the state and local school course requirements. But in 21 states, they receive their diploma based on having passed state exit exams.
Twenty years ago, only New York required an exit exam. Under the outcomes-based education craze, trust was pulled away from the quizzes and tests administered by teachers in their classwork (internal assessments) and only standardized external assessments were valued. Two additional reasons drove half the states to adopt these exit exams, called “high stakes” because the student could not graduate without passing them.
In many states, more-and-more teachers were teaching out-of-field. That meant that they did not know the subject they were teaching and could not be relied on to give meaningful grades. The states with the most out-of-field teachers were coastal and southern states. The Midwest and Great Plains states have far fewer out-of-field teachers. Their teacher’s grades are reliable and remain a better predictor of college success than other measures.
And a few states added exit exams because it was a way to “motivate” students to put effort into the all-important No Child Left Behind assessments.
The effect of state exit exams on teaching professionalism was immediate. Students stopped paying attention to the teacher and only paid attention to the test. “Will this be on the test?” went from being a pesky question from some students to being the only question. For instance, in Texas, when students complete their exit exam in March, the rest of the school year is irrelevant playtime. This total focus on the test makes creative classwork and discussion irrelevant and good teachers helpless.
This downside has become evident. States are gradually dropping exit exams. In June 2009, the Alabama State Board of Education voted to phase out their five-section high school graduation exam and instead require end-of-course tests in the same subjects. They also voted to have all juniors take the ACT college entrance exam at state cost, and added the 8th grade EXPLORE test for career planning and the Work Keys exam for seniors.
Meanwhile Ohio, facing deep budget cuts, saved $9 million dollars dropping the writing test for fourth- and seventh-graders and the social studies test for fifth- and eighth-graders. According to the Plain Dealer, new tests are being developed to replace the high school graduation test with end-of-course tests, a college entrance exam, and a senior project.
Even in New York, where the “Regents exams” have been given since 1878, money is short. In March, the Regents estimated they would save $13.7 million by eliminating 13 of 17 tests including: three of the four science exams, two of the three math exams, all high school foreign language exams, social studies in fifth and eight grades, and two high school social studies tests. They are awaiting the New York Governor’s budget before they decide whether they too will eliminate the testing.
There is no faster way to deprofessionalize teaching than by substituting an external assessment for course grades. Kansans know the wise saying: “If it isn’t broken, don’t ‘fix’ it.”
John Richard Schrock
Today only 21 states (orange) have mandatory high school exit exams. Revised from N.Y.D.E., 2008