Earning passing grades doesn't guarantee a high school diploma anymore for half of U.S. public school students.
A growing number of states now require high school students to pass an exit exam to graduate, though some states are backpedaling amid backlash over students denied diplomas.
High school students in 20 states this spring must pass a standardized test to get a diploma. The class of 2006 will see the next major expansion of exit exams. Four states -- Arizona, California, Idaho and Utah - for the first time next year will withhold diplomas from seniors who fail the final exam. Washington state will phase in the test by 2008.
Phasing in high-stakes exit exams has been a bumpy road in some places. High failure rates caused lawmakers in Arizona and California to postpone the date for withholding diplomas from 2004 to 2006. In Arizona , 64 percent of the class of 2004 failed the state math exit exam and 41 percent failed the English exam. In California , a study projected that about 20 percent of seniors would have been denied diplomas in 2004 if the test were enforced.
Education officials in both states adopted new standards for the states' exit exams last year that have lead to higher pass rates, raising questions of whether they lowered the bar to pass more students. Lawmakers in both states also are considering legislation to postpone the tests again or to toss the requirement altogether.
"A very intense grassroots battle is being waged in California and Arizona to force lawmakers to fix real problems in schools instead of taking diplomas away from students who are doing their best under poor learning conditions," said Monty Neill, executive director of Fair Test, an organization that has been researching testing in public schools since 1987.
By 2008, seven in 10 students nationwide will be taking exit exams, according to the Center on Education Policy (CEP), which publishes annual reports on high school exit exams. Most students first take the test in the 11th grade and are allowed up to five re-tests if they fail.
Exit exams differ from those mandated by the No Child Left Behind law, which requires annual testing in grades three to eight and at least once in high school. Those tests are not tied to high school graduation.
Lawmakers hope the exit tests will improve student performance and boost the value of a high school diploma. Reforming America's high schools has become a national priority in recent months, with President Bush urging Congress to hold high schools accountable for student achievement by extending federally mandated testing to grades 9-11. The nation's governors also have targeted high school for reform, and 18 states recently formed a coalition pledging to aggressively raise the academic bar in their high schools.
"Exit exams can be a critical lever or incentive for encouraging kids to reach higher standards," said Matt Gandal, vice president of Achieve, Inc., a nonpartisan group sponsored by state governors and business leaders that is coordinating state efforts to reform high schools.
Education researchers, however, said they fear high-stakes tests intimidate students and lead to higher dropout rates, especially among low-income or disabled students and black and Latino high schoolers, who fail at higher rates than white and Asian students.
About 90 percent of high school seniors ultimately pass the test, but a high percentage fail on their first attempt and an unknown number drop out before ever taking the test, according to CEP. Depending on the state, up to 70 percent of students fail the math test and up to 40 percent fail the English test first time around. Pass rates decrease dramatically when broken down by types of students, with black, Hispanic, low-income, non-English speaking and disabled students scoring 30 to 40 percent below Asian and white students.
Measuring the impact of exit exams on dropout rates is difficult, researchers say, because states do not accurately track students who change schools, get held back or drop out.
For example, the Massachusetts Department of Education reported that 96 percent of the class of 2004 passed the state exit exam. But the department did not count high school dropouts in its calculation, said Anne Wheelock, a research associate at the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation and Education Policy at Boston College .
Instead of counting how many seniors graduated, Wheelock calculated that just 74 percent of Massachusetts students who started as freshmen in 2001 received diplomas in 2004.
"The state's pass rates are really half-truths at best," Wheelock said.
Utah's plans to introduce exit exams next year are on track, but nearly one-third of the 35,000 students in the class of 2006 still have not passed one or more sections of the state's exit exam, which tests reading, writing and math. The state board of education recently asked for $10 million to pay for tutoring, summer school and other programs to help failing students, but the Legislature rejected the request.
Only 11 states with exit exams allocate funds for tutoring and additional instruction for students who fail, according to CEP.
The list includes Virginia , where lawmakers voted last year to boost services to low-income students at risk of failing the state exit exam. Extra funding helped expand a pilot program created by Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) that combined summer school, tutoring and online tutorials for about 2,900 high school students. Nearly three-quarters of those students eventually passed their exams and received a diploma in 2004, said Virginia Department of Education spokesperson Charles Pyle.
"The approach to graduation under Governor Warner was to hold fast to the higher standards that had been set while at the same time expanding opportunities for students who were struggling to meet the higher standards," Pyle said.
All states with exit exams allow multiple re-test opportunities and alternate tests for students with disabilities, according to CEP. Thirteen states (Alaska, California, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah and Virginia) provide alternate diplomas or certificates of achievement for students who do not pass the exit exam. Seven states (Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Maryland, New York, North Carolina and Virginia) allow students to substitute passing scores on other tests, such as the SAT. Nine states (Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Mexico, Ohio and Utah) have a waiver or appeals process so that students who fail can request a diploma if they meet other criteria.