NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Curriculum-Based Graduation Exams Pay Off

January 7, 2002

While a few U.S. states either have or are considering demanding high school graduation tests, most only employ minimum competency "exit" exams. Almost none has the rigorous, curriculum-based tests similar to the French Baccalaureate, or English GCSE or A-level, high stakes exams that effectively determine which college a student can attend and the field of study he can pursue -- or even whether he's admitted to college at all.

But a recent examination of the results of the 1995 Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) in 40 countries showed the tough exams have benefits.

  • Students with medium- or high-stakes exit exams outperform others by a 1.3 U.S. grade level equivalent in science.
  • They outperform their peers by a 1.0 U.S. grade level equivalent in math.
  • A 1991 study of 13-year-olds in 15 nations found students who took curriculum-based exit exams outperformed others by about a 2.0 U.S. grade level equivalent in math.
  • They topped their peers by two-thirds of a U.S. grade level equivalent in science and geography.

One reason for this, experts suggest, is that curriculum-based exams are associated with higher standards for entry into the teaching profession, better pay for teachers and teachers who majored in the subject they teach. Schools, provinces and countries with rigorous exams also devote more hours to math and science and build and equip better science labs.

So what's standing in the way of the U.S. adopting a similar system to those in Europe and East Asia? In part, observers speculate, it's the American ideal of equal opportunity and education's unique role in advancing it. And any student of any age, as long as the money is available, can find a university to attend, unlike some European and Asian countries.

Source: John H. Bishop, "A Steeper, Better Road to Graduation," Education Next, Winter 2001, Hoover Institution.


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