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Report: States Should Scrap Exit Exams To Avert ‘Catastrophe’

States that have adopted new Common Core multi-state education standards risk “catastrophe” if they use them in conjunction with mandatory high school exit exams, according to a major think tank.

The nature of the risk, says the New America Foundation (NAF), lies with Common Core’s use of significantly increased standards for high school students that have been crafted with the goal of making them “college and career ready.”

Currently,  out of 24 states that require students to pass some sort of exit exam to graduate high school, 10 of them plan to have their exit exams be supplied by either PARCC or Smarter Balanced — two testing consortia that are creating multi-state tests around Common Core standards.

Ongoing field tests in states such as New York indicate that these tests are significantly more difficult than those used by most states prior to the advent of Common Core.

By using tests based on more challenging standards, schools are walking into a situation where a much higher number of students won’t be able to pass the test needed to get a high school diploma.

States with exit exams, then, face a choice.

“If college- and career-ready standards and tests are simply fitted into states’ existing infrastructure of high-stakes exit exams and graduation requirements, the pipeline of students from high school to college and the workforce could suddenly, catastrophically, clench shut,” the report argues. “But if history is any indication, that is unlikely to happen. Instead, the impulse to avoid this outcome would be predictable: the dilution of the college- and career-ready standards and/or lower cut scores on the new assessments so that more students can pass and graduate.”

Doing the latter, says the NAF, would undermine the entire point of trying to implement higher standards in the first place.

While the report focuses on Common Core, the problem it observes is not limited to those standards. Rather, the issue is with the push for tougher high school standards in general.

In Oklahoma, for instance, legislators who led the charge to repeal Common Core in the state have said they plan the state’s replacement standards to be equally or more rigorous. Oklahoma is one of the states that has a high school exit exam.

To avoid such problems with exit exams, the NAF suggests that states either scrap the tests entirely, or else significantly alter their nature so that a solid performance can provide benefits to passing students without denying other students their diplomas.

Schools could allow solid test results to boost high school grades, or could provide benefits to high-scoring students if they enroll in public state colleges following graduation.

Such benefits, they argue, would provide a benefit from exit exams while avoiding political pressure to dumb down the state’s overall educational standards.

The New America Foundation is a prominent centrist think-tank based in Washington, D.C.

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