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Five Questions For … The Center on Education Policy’s Shelby McIntosh, on The Changing Landscape for High School Exit Exams

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EWA spoke Shelby McIntosh, a research associate at the Center on Education Policy, about the new report High School Exit Exams: A Policy in Transition.

1. How useful are the exit exams as a measure of college readiness if many higher education systems aren’t using them for that purpose?

That’s one of the big questions here. States are saying that this is a purpose of these exams – they want to know how prepared students are for college or for a career right out of high school. We also know these postsecondary institutions are not using them for this type of decision. Perhaps the Common Core State Standards will help bridge that gap. It’s important that postsecondary institutions have a voice in how the exit exams are developed. Maybe that’s the answer – when they have more input, they’ll start using them.

2. How difficult is it going to be to link the exit exams to the new standards?

The predicament is that the standards are going to be higher and the exams will be harder. If students don’t reach those higher levels, what happens to their educational experiences? What support systems will be in place to help them? That’s why we look at the initial pass rates (for exit exams). Even though few students don’t graduate as a result of these exams, those who fail them on the first try have a very different high school experience than those who pass them. It often determines whether or not they’re exposed to a more advanced curriculum. The expectations for their futures change. We absolutely want schools to be concerned about making sure students are prepared for college and careers, but when you start blending Common Core proficiency with exit exams, there needs to be a plan for students who don’t meet those expectations.

3. Exit exams are being phased out. Does that mean opponents are winning? Or is the landscape of accountability changing?

We really tried to get at that. We haven’t been able to get any kind of straight answer; it’s such a highly political issue. I think it’s more the second: The landscape is changing. Even though students in these states won’t have to meet a particular passing standard to graduate, end-of-course exams will still weigh heavily on their ability to graduate. I think it’s the changing landscape. I won’t say at all the opponents have won their argument.

4. Are exit exams an equitable measure as they’re currently being used?

What we do know is that states with higher populations of historically under-served students are more likely to have policies where exit exams are a requirement for graduation. It’s seven out of every 10 students nationally, but the percentages are even higher for students of color and English-language learners. These policies are aimed at getting those students to a higher standard but there’s very little evidence that they actually improve achievement. What the policies are effective at doing is shining a light on the bigger problem – some students are not getting the same educational experience. What the exams don’t do is help states take steps to close that gap.

5. Should there be a cooling off period between the adoption of the Common Core State Standards and linking them to exit exams?

There has to be an opportunity for schools and students to adjust before being held accountable to the higher standards. States that took the time to phase in controversial policies, to see how they were impacting students, seemed to have better experiences. That’s the lesson here: It can’t be done by jumping into the deep end of the pool.

One of the messages from our report is that state leaders really have to accept the responsibility for making sure these policies are impacting schools and students in the way they intend. The only way they can do that is through monitoring, research and evaluations, and that all takes money. They have to be financially committed if they want them to succeed. That could be difficult given the shrinking state budgets for education.

The good news is that any time there are increasing expectations for all students that’s a good thing. We want all students to be prepared for a career right out of high school or for college. Our concern is that those high expectations are properly supported, so that they don’t wind up hurting some groups of students.