Considerations for a new Kentucky high school exit exam

by | Aug 31, 2018 | Accountability, Ed., Featured, Meaningful High School Diploma, Regular Ed |

The Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) is considering a proposal from the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) to make substantial changes to the state’s minimum high school graduation requirements. They will vote on the proposal in early October. In my previous post, I shared a bit of history about how we got to where we are today and what major changes the proposal would entail.

One significant change in this proposal is to move Kentucky away from using end-of-course assessments designed to promote comparability across courses (and have some stakes for students through course grades) and toward a high-stakes exit exam that requires students to achieve minimum scores in reading and mathematics to graduate. In this post, I discuss my thoughts about what it might mean for Kentucky students and Kentucky’s education system to make this shift.

I have some experience with exit exams in the state that borders us to the south. In 2007, as it happens, I was involved in crafting significant changes to Tennessee’s graduation requirements – including eliminating high-stakes exit exams in favor of lower-stakes end-of-course assessments, and requiring a college- and career-ready course of study for all graduates. We were heavily influenced by the current graduation requirements policy in Kentucky, which KBE adopted in 2006.

Exit exams, or minimum competency tests, have been around since the 1970’s. The argument for these exams is simple – to ensure that all high school graduates can demonstrate academic knowledge and skills at some minimum level, regardless of the school they attend. Massachusetts, for example, instituted an exit exam for 10th grade students, the MCAS, as a part of its massive education reforms in the 1990’s. Some states have set exit exams at the 8th or 9th grade level. Typically, students have to reach a certain score on the exam or go through an appeal option, such as demonstrate their learning through examples of their work in high school (often known as a portfolio) or performance on other assessments.

The stakes involved in this policy – a high school diploma or no high school diploma – are high enough, the rationale goes, that schools will improve instruction and interventions to support all students to reach the minimum level.

From what I have observed, this is a real, tangible benefit to such a policy. In Tennessee, for example, we heard from several schools that the policy encouraged them to give students with learning differences support to take Algebra I and reach proficiency on the exit exam, with appropriate accommodations. We also observed extreme disadvantages from the exit exam policy. Most notably, its ripple effects promoted a low bar for content and proficiency throughout the system. As a result, the system sent confusing signals to students – saying that they were proficient when they were far from prepared for the next grade or their next steps.

All policy change involves trade-offs. Exit exam policies tend to involve more acute trade-offs, particularly given greater risks for legal challenges. As Kentucky’s education leaders consider adopting a new high school assessment system with an exit exam component, here are some questions to address:

  • How will the state promote comparability across high school courses? This issue is tough to tackle, because Kentucky’s implementation of end-of-course assessments has been, well, unfortunate. Beginning in 2012, the state administered ACT Quality Core assessments, which were not remotely aligned to state standards. Then, it developed Kentucky-designed end-of-course tests and field-tested them last spring, but has evidently decided not make them operational. Without using aligned, high-quality end-of-course assessments as a lever, how can the state provide support to districts to make sure students have exposure to aligned, rigorous coursework in key high school courses?
  • What level of content will the exit exam encompass? The proposal requires 10th grade students to take the assessment in reading, mathematics, science, and social studies. What standards will the tests encompass? Will they include up through standards that would be addressed in courses that students take in 9th and 10th grade, or at a lower grade levels? If at lower grade levels, how will the state ensure that 9th and 10th grade students have exposure to rigorous coursework in these grades, rather than test prep for content from lower grade levels? How will the state ensure that students who need to retake the exam continue to advance in their coursework?
  • What level of performance will students be required to meet? Will students need to reach an apprentice or proficient level, or some other level of performance on these assessments to graduate? Who will make this decision? What information will inform their decision, and whose perspectives will inform the decision? How will the state ensure that performance level definitions continue to reflect the level of preparation needed for students to be prepared for their next steps, rather than a minimum passing level?
  • How will the state ensure students receive appropriate accommodations for the exam? The state MUST guarantee that each student eligible for accommodations receives those accommodations in full for all administrations of the exam.
  • What alternative options will be available to students who do not meet the minimum level, and how will the state support and monitor use of these alternatives? The current proposal allows students to re-take the exam in their 11th and 12th grade years, and includes a portfolio option (demonstration of learning such as examples of student work). How will the state ensure that students and their parents understand these provisions? How will the state provide support to districts in implementing them? How will the state collect and report data on re-takes and use of alternative options?
  • How will the state support districts in improving instruction and intervention so all students will meet the minimum level of performance? If the intent of the policy is to encourage higher performance among students who would otherwise graduate without minimum reading and mathematics knowledge and skills, how will the state promote professional learning opportunities to increase effective instruction and intervention strategies, beginning well before high school? How will it learn from variation in strategies – and success of those strategies – across the state? In particular, how will the state ensure incoming 9th grade students in fall 2019 who will be subject to this policy receive high-quality instruction and targeted interventions to help them succeed on the exam?
  • How will the state ensure all students and their families understand this policy and what it means for them? Today, all students need to graduate from high school and complete some form of postsecondary credential. Leaving high school without a regular diploma has life-long implications for young people, their families, and their communities. Students and their families need to not only be aware of this policy change, but understand their rights, their options, and available and effective supports.

If you haven’t read it yet, check out my post about the proposed changes to course requirements.

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