U.S. High School Students Should Take Exit Exams

(Bloomberg View) -- America's high schools have a credibility problem: The country's graduation rate is at a record high, but too many students are receiving diplomas without earning them. The most straightforward solution is to require all high-schoolers to pass exit examinations before graduating.

A national push to boost high-school graduation rates began a decade ago, spurred by fears that urban high schools had turned into "dropout factories." The federal government made graduation rates a benchmark of schools' progress. In some districts, graduation rates affect the pay of principals and school administrators and determine whether underperforming schools are shut down.

By some measures, the focus on reducing dropouts has worked. Today, 84 percent of 17-year-olds graduate from high school, up from 75 percent in 2008. But federal investigators found that California and Alabama had miscalculated their numbers. And officials in Washington, D.C. -- one of the country's leading laboratories of education reform -- disclosed that one-third of graduating seniors in 2017 didn't fulfill the requirements for a diploma, but got one anyway.

In most rich countries, students finishing secondary school take national exams. Yet in the U.S., only 12 states require students to pass tests of academic proficiency in order to graduate. Exit exams are casualties of a misguided assault on standardized testing, to which members of both parties have largely surrendered.

Critics say exit exams disproportionately hurt low-income students and minorities, who are more likely to drop out if they fail. That's an argument for investing more in helping all students meet high standards. Policy-makers should emulate states like Massachusetts, which combines demanding graduation exams with targeted funding to assist students who fall short. The state's graduation rate has risen for 11 straight years, to 88 percent -- more than four points higher than the national average.      

The goal of exit exams should be to ensure students are prepared for productive lives after high school -- whether in college or the workforce. High schools should set different "cut lines" on exit exams to distinguish between college readiness and basic proficiency. To promote career-oriented skills, they should give students the option -- as the state of Ohio does --  to fulfill a portion of their graduation requirements by obtaining an industry-certified credential.

Revelations of graduation-rate inflation shouldn't overshadow the progress made in places like Washington, D.C., which has seen significant improvement in standardized test scores. But allowing students to graduate without meeting basic standards only penalizes the ones who've made the grade. The best way to restore the value of a high school diploma is to insist that all students show they've earned it.

--Editors: Romesh Ratnesar, Clive Crook.

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©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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