Report: High school exit exams don't gauge college readiness
Many states' tests seen as lacking a clear purpose
WASHINGTON -- Many high school graduation tests do not measure whether students are ready for college or work, and some states have not made clear what the purpose of their test is, a study reported.
Of the 25 states that have or plan graduation exams, only Georgia says its test ensures that students are prepared for higher education or work. Most of the states gear their tests toward 10th- or 11th-grade learning, and some gauge pre-ninth grade skills, according to a study released yesterday by the Center on Education Policy, a nonprofit research group.
With 20 states now withholding diplomas from students who do not pass tests in English and math, if not other subjects, the common assumption is that the tests measure college readiness, said Keith Gayler, lead author of the report. That is wrong, he said.
The center found that some states had little clarity about the purpose of their tests, which makes the exams harder to explain and defend politically, director Jack Jennings said.
''If they're not clear, then they can't write an exam that's legitimate," Jennings said of state leaders. ''We're urging states to reexamine their policies."
High school graduation hinges on exit exams for more than half of all public school students, and that number is expected to grow to 7 in 10 students by 2009.
The 259-page report generally had praise for the Massachusetts test, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, calling it among the nation's most rigorous. Passing both the English and math portions of the 10th-grade test became a graduation requirement with the class of 2003. Students' scores fall into one of four levels: failing, needs improvement, proficient, and advanced.
State Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll said he partially agrees with the center's assessment. Passing the MCAS test merely signifies the ability to do 10th-grade work, he said. But Driscoll said high-schoolers who score in the proficient or advanced categories are ready for college-level work.
''If the CEP report is suggesting that the exit exams . . . aren't preparing kids for the military, jobs, or higher education, I'd absolutely agree," Driscoll said. ''With passing at the 10th-grade level, the only thing it's doing is allowing kids to say I have some basic skills in English and math."
Meanwhile, colleges and employers continue to warn that schools are graduating students who cannot communicate, analyze, or reason well enough to succeed without remediation. High school exit exams have been promoted as a way to ensure students leave with quality skills.
The graduation exams seem to be encouraging schools to cover more content and to add remedial courses or other help for students at risk of failing the tests, the report said.
But there are drawbacks to the tests, too, it said, such as a narrowing of curriculum, and the steering of some students away from a traditional diploma.
The center takes no position on the tests, aiming instead to highlight what is working and what is not as state leaders weigh decisions. For its annual report, the center collected data from the states, reviewed research, and convened a national panel on the tests' impacts.
With the debate over the exams quieting somewhat, states have an opportunity to close gaps in achievement for blacks, Hispanics, and students who are poor, Gayler said. To move right to high school tests that measure college readiness, he said, would yield ''so few students passing at this point that the reforms would crumble under their own weight."
Typically, 65 percent to 85 percent of students pass their test on the first try. Comparisons among states are inappropriate because tests are different, the report said.
Thousands of students did not graduate this year because they failed exit tests, but the total number is not available because of appeals and a lack of data tracking, the report said.
Earlier this year, an alliance of education groups called the American Diploma Project said high school graduation has lost its meaning. In calling for more rigor, the group said that exit exams should be broad enough to test years of high school content, and that colleges should use the tests in determining where to place new students.
Globe staff writer Anand Vaishnav contributed to this report.