Exit Exams Don’t Increase Dropouts, Study Finds

Published July 1, 2004

Critics of high-stakes testing have argued that public high school exit exams cause many students, particularly minority-group members, to drop out in frustration without gaining a diploma that would be valuable to them in the job market.

However, a new study by Manhattan Institute scholars finds the exit exams administered by 24 states have had no net effect on graduation rates.

“Our findings should provide optimism to those who wish to use exit exams to provide quality control for high school diplomas,” concluded scholars Jay P. Greene and Marcus A. Winters. “The results of our analysis show that exit exams may allow states to distribute more meaningful diplomas to the same percentage of students as before.”

Greene and Winters used two respected methods of calculating graduation rates for each state from 1991 to 2001. In addition to finding required graduation testing had no impact, their analysis indicated neither class-size reduction in secondary schools nor increased per-pupil spending result in higher graduation rates.

The scholars acknowledged many news media stories about individual students who completed their class work but were denied a diploma because they couldn’t pass a state test. However, they noted many factors contribute to the tests having essentially zero effect on graduation rates.

One factor is that such tests typically require very low levels of proficiency. A 2004 Fordham Foundation study of 30 states’ accountability systems rated as “poor” the rigor of state-required standardized tests. In addition, states give students extra instruction and multiple chances to clear this low hurdle before actually denying them diplomas.

“Most students who are serious about graduating high school should be able to pass such an exam if given enough tries, even if only by chance,” the researchers concluded.

The relatively few students who do give up may well be cancelled out statistically by a like number of students who did graduate because the tests gave their schools an incentive to improve and to address the needs of at-risk students, they added.

As for critics’ counter-argument that recently adopted exit exams are more difficult than those of 1990s vintage and therefore may cause more dropouts, Greene and Winters analyzed the data and found current tests are having the same lack of impact on graduation rates as the old tests.

If exit exams convince employers of the worth of the high school diploma as an indicator of basic proficiency, that could boost the prospects of job-seeking students. The Manhattan study indicates Hispanic youth might benefit in particular.

U.S. Department of Labor data have shown recent Hispanic high school graduates are just as likely as recent Hispanic dropouts to be unemployed. Passing an exit exam might give the Hispanic graduate an edge.

The states with high school exit exams are Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The May 2004 Manhattan Institute study by Jay P. Greene and Marcus A. Winters, “Pushed Out or Pulled Up? Exit Exams and Dropout Rates in Public High Schools,” is available online at http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/ewp_05.htm.