States With High-School Exit Exams Focus More on College and Career Readiness, Report Says

September 19, 2012

A growing number of states are aligning their high-school exit examinations with college- and career-readiness standards, as pressure builds on the nation's secondary-education system to do a better job of preparing students for college-level work or to enter the work force.

Specifically, eight of 26 states that require students to take high-school exit exams have linked those tests with the Common Core State Standards or other similar types of college-readiness measures, and 10 more states plan to do so in the future, according to a new report, "State High School Exit Exams: A Policy in Transition," from the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University.

Shelby McIntosh, a research associate at the policy center and the report's author, said the results were not surprising, given the "growing recognition that we are sending too many students into postsecondary education unprepared."

"Perhaps this movement can bridge that gap," she said.

The eight states making the move are Florida, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Virginia.

The nation's elementary and secondary schools are often criticized for ineffectively educating students. Critics point out that many high-school graduates enter college unprepared for college-level work and need to take remedial courses. The figure is upward of 60 percent at community colleges, and as high as 90 percent at some institutions.

The Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, were developed through a state-led effort to establish guidelines for the skills and knowledge students need to acquire in mathematics and English-language arts. The standards seek to ensure that high-school students receive a consistently "high-quality education" regardless of the school they attend and the state they live in, and graduate from high school adequately prepared for college and careers.

When states began to adopt high-school exit exams a decade ago, the focus was on ensuring that students were mastering state curriculum standards. But with the national push to produce more college graduates and a better trained work force, the focus has changed to include college and career readiness, says the report from the Center on Education Policy.

In fact, 12 states responded to the center's recent survey that one of the reasons that high-school students were required to take an exit exam was to prepare them for college or start a career. Only one state, Georgia, responded that way back in 2004, when the question was first asked by the policy center.

Education stakeholders, such as local business leaders, were a factor behind the shift, the report says.

Very few states reported that their exit-exam scores were used by colleges for "admission, placement, or scholarship decisions," says the report. That throws into question whether linking exit exams with college- and career-readiness standards will actually yield better alignment between secondary and postsecondary education, Ms. McIntosh said.