Sunday, August 31, 2003

Exit exams don't make sense

DeWayne Wickham
Gannett News Service

The bad news just keeps getting worse when it comes to the high school exit exams the Bush administration imposed upon states in its "No Child Left Behind" education bill.

The law requires all states to eventually test high school students for math and English competence as a condition for graduation. So far the tests, which are being phased in around the nation, have caused more alarm than joy in many education circles.

Half of all high school students in Maryland who recently took a pilot exit exam failed. In fact, the overall failure rate - 55.6 percent - was so high that state education officials have delayed making the test a requirement for graduation.

Roughly two-thirds of black students and one-third of white students failed each section of Maryland's exam, which measured students' knowledge of English, government, algebra and biology. A quarter of Asian students failed the math test and a third of them didn't get a passing score on the English portion of the exam.

The results were even more dismal in Ohio.

Fewer than 25 percent of the students who took the math portion and just a third of those who took the reading section of the trial-run exam got passing grades. Only 5 percent of blacks and 10 percent of Latino students passed the math portion of the test, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer reported last week.

This year 19 states had mandatory exit exams. Five more are expected to enact such a graduation requirement by 2008. But instead of improving the nation's education systems, these tests just point out their flaws - and the warped thinking that imposed these exams on high school students.

Already several states have come up with waivers for students who fail the exam so that they can still graduate.

Testing high school students to determine that they have acquired a baseline of knowledge before they can get a diploma is a good idea in the abstract. But as they are being implemented, these exit exams don't make sense.

And here's why.

Just as it doesn't make sense to teach algebra before you teach addition and subtraction, it's a bad idea to impose an exit exam on high school students who were not subjected to a similar achievement standard - and the heightened classroom instruction to go with it - to get out of elementary or middle school. A better idea would have been to build toward a high school graduation test by mandating that first elementary and then middle school students achieve an acceptable level of proficiency in their studies.

You can't build a strong house without a good foundation. But that's exactly what the exit exam mandate of the "No Child Left Behind" law attempts to do. High school students from urban, suburban and rural school districts, who in many instances have had vastly different educational experiences, are now being asked to achieve comparable results on an exit exam.

Such an approach doesn't seem to be working very well. Ironically, there is evidence that suggests that "exit exams are associated with higher dropout rates," the Center on Education Policy said in "State High School Exit Exams Put to the Test," a report it issued earlier this month.

If good sense doesn't prevail, the rush to impose exit exams on the nation's high school students will do more harm than good.

To fix what's wrong with this nation's public schools, educators should focus more on improving the learning that takes place early in a student's educational experience rather than on imposing an exit exam on high school students.


DeWayne Wickham, c/o Gannett News Service, 1000 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22229. E-mail: DeWayneWickham@aol.com

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