NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 25, 2006

High school graduation exams, which are used in about half of the United States, are coming under fire for being hurtful to minorities, who are more likely to drop out in areas with the toughest exams.  But despite this tendency, higher dropout rates are no cause to water down high school education standards, says USA Today.

Graduation exams serve as useful checks on the value of a diploma.  Students who are allowed to graduate high school with no accountability standards lead to new problems once they leave, including:

  • High college remediation rates -- students forced to take non-credit, remedial courses end up paying more for college and are less likely to graduate.
  • Employer dissatisfaction -- more than 60 percent of employers rate the basic English and math skills of young employees as "poor" or "fair"; those employers end up spending millions to educate workers.
  • Student dissatisfaction -- surveys of high school graduates reveal that the students themselves believe they should have taken more demanding courses in school; more than 80 percent of the students said they believe in graduation exams.

States with the best track record show that exams don't have to be detrimental to student advancement.  Virginia, for example:

  • Identified students at risk of failing the exit exam and pulled them together for "summer academies" to work on specific skills.
  • The effort appeared to pay off -- since 2004, when the Virginia exit exam took effect, the graduation rate has barely changed.

In some cases, exit exams might push up dropout rates, but that doesn't have to be the case.  If states design exit exams carefully -- and give struggling students extra help -- dropout rates can hold steady while standards rise.

Source: Editorial, "Tests exposed flawed diplomas," USA Today, July 25, 2006


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