What Research Tells Us About Exit Exams and the State Board of Education’s Responsibility

by | Oct 2, 2018 | Accountability, Ed., Featured, Meaningful High School Diploma, Regular Ed

The Prichard Committee and partner organizations have called for a delay of the Kentucky Board of Education’s vote on proposed minimum high school graduation requirements, requesting due diligence in the Board’s review of the proposal brought to them on Aug. 2, 2018.  This is a critical issue given the changing nature of our economy and the fact that only 65 percent of Kentucky’s 2017 graduating seniors received a college or career ready diploma.

The basic frame of the proposal, which includes a core academic foundation and more personalized pathways for students, holds promise for ensuring a more meaningful high school diploma for Kentucky students.

However, two late additions to the proposal – exit exams in reading and mathematics and requiring a student to be transition ready to graduate – are vague in their details and have benefitted from little to no public discussion or input. If approved, the proposal would be a significant shift in Kentucky’s accountability model.

Kentucky vests significant responsibility in an appointed body of citizens to the Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) and their hiring of a professional Commissioner to lead the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE). The weight of this responsibility requires the KBE and the KDE to thoroughly research and analyze proposals for assurance that they will serve to move our state system of public education and Kentucky’s students forward.

With that in mind, the following is a review of the body of research on exit exams which we began to put together following the proposal to the KBE in August. While the details of the Department’s proposal have not been clearly spelled out and may not be identical to any one implementation model from other states, the findings of the research can and should be used to inform Kentucky’s approach to increasing student success.

First, a bit of background.

Minimum competency exams that required a student to pass a standardized test of basic skills to graduate gained traction in the 1970’s and were implemented in 19 states by the early 1980s. Over time, as standards-based reform became the norm across the nation, states began to implement more rigorous standards-based exit exams. By 2008, 23 states required students to pass some type of exam to graduate from high school.

The goals behind the exit exams were simple and sound: a more meaningful high school diploma that 1) increases student achievement and 2) increases postsecondary success. Simply put, these exams were intended to provide evidence to employers and the public that students are prepared for life after high school.

In 2010, a research team from the University of Texas at Austin reviewed the body of research on exit exams to see if the twin goals had been met. Their meta-analysis included 46 studies on the effects of exit exams on student achievement, graduation, postsecondary outcomes, and school response. The research found little to suggest that either minimum-competency exams or more rigorous standards-based exit exams positively impacted any of the studied outcomes. Summarizing the main takeaway, the researchers noted:

The evidence reviewed indicates that exit tests have produced few of the expected benefits and have been associated with costs for the most disadvantaged students.”

More specifically, the study found that exit exams were associated with higher dropout rates for lower-performing students, black males, minority students and students in high poverty areas while having unclear impacts on student achievement, employment, and earnings.

Similarly, National Research Council concluded in 2011 findings that high school exit exams decrease the rate of high school graduation without improvements in student achievement as measured by low-stakes tests such as National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).

More recently, according to a 2016 report from the Education Commission of the States, for the graduating class of 2017, only 15 states required students to pass exit exams to graduate from high school with 11 states having dropped exit exam requirements since 2011 – including Tennessee.

These findings indicate that Kentucky needs to do further study before the passage of a proposal which includes exit exams and was presented just two months ago. If Kentucky chooses to make the significant shift to exit exams, policymakers and stakeholders alike must understand the potential negative effects, and work together to craft an approach with a strong, evidence-based chance of improving success for all groups of students.

Key questions remain, including:

  • What have other states experienced in implementing these types of exams and what are the real impacts at the classroom and student-learning level?
  • What remediation programs and supports would be offered for students not on track to meet the minimum proficiency standard?
  • What supports and professional development would be provided to guide and improve instruction?
  • How would we ensure students are challenged with rigorous curricula and afforded opportunities for excellence and not tracked to remediation only?

Given the high-stakes of such an exam, at the very least the KBE should take the time for further review and encourage feedback from students, parents, higher education officials, and school districts ahead of a second reading – not after.

Lastly, this is an important enough decision, with far-reaching implications for our students and our state, that consideration should be given as to whether such a decision requires action by the Kentucky General Assembly.

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