High-Stakes Decisions: The Legal Landscape of Exit Exams Required to Graduate


High school exit exam requirements are impacting a growing number of U.S. students, particularly low-income students and students of color. This peer-reviewed article examines policy and legal landscape of exit testing policy in order to shed light on some of the key issues facing local school leaders charged with implementing these policies. The article first analyzes federal and state-level court cases related to exit testing, and examines the conditions under which courts have permitted and bounded their use. The article then discuses the broader legal and legislative environment that has affected the ability of leaders to respond to exit testing requirements. 

We conclude in the article that the persistent resource inequalities and growing segregation in many contexts means that the issue of “opportunity to learn” will remain a significant problem in the implementation of high-stakes exit testing. We proffer these problems will pose the most significant challenges to educators and leaders working in high poverty schools and school districts. In the paper High stakes decisions: The legal landscape of gatekeeping exit exams and the implications for schools and leaders, we propose several recommendations for state policymakers and educational leaders seeking to raise standards and improve outcomes for the most at-risk youth facing exams required for graduation.

First, state policymakers seeking to adopt exit tests should focus on ensuring students have access to the learning conditions necessary to meet the new requirements. This means not only providing on-going, stable and significant funding for remediation as suggested by the state settlements described above; it also means ensuring greater equality in resources more broadly both in terms of per pupil funding and also in terms of access to high quality teachers.

A specific focus should be given to the issue of teacher quality, which is often a hidden resource inequity, particularly in terms of salaries, as stated above. Indeed, in GI Forum, Judge Prado acknowledged the fact that poor and minority students are disproportionately assigned uncertified and low-quality teachers. Research has consistently shown that segregated, high poverty schools have a difficult time attracting and retaining experienced teachers. Several studies have found that, across various measures of teacher quality, increases in the number of low-income and non-white students are associated with decreases in the average level of teacher training and education (Clotfelter et al. 2006; Hanushek et al., 2004; Jackson, 2009; Lankford, Loeb & Wyckoff, 2002). Policymakers should provide much more transparent data and be held accountable for levels of experience and salary gaps between schools.

Finally, the disproportionately high rates of failure on exit tests for non-white, low income, and English Learner students suggests that these systems should be modified to provide alternative pathways to graduation for students who fail exit exams. This would bring testing systems into alignment with standards of educational assessment which state that “in elementary or secondary education, a decision or characterization that will have a major impact on a test taker should not automatically be made on the basis of a single test score. Other relevant information . . . should also be taken into account” (American Educational Research Association et al., 1985:54, Standard 8.12 as cited in Heubert & Hauser, 1999, p. 179). As of 2009, 19 of the 26 states with current or planned exit testing requirements offered some alternative for students who are unable to pass the state exam, although these ranged from extremely limited exceptions to significant accommodations such as portfolio assessments (CEP, 2009). Rigorous alternatives would provide an equitable way to provide alternate ways for students to demonstrate mastery while ensuring students have still met the standards set by states (Darling Hammond, Rustique-Forrester & Pecheone, 2005).

This analysis offers a number of implications and recommendations for local district and school leaders. First, as with the recommendation to states, districts must ensure that resources across its schools are equalized in terms of per pupil spending, supplies and equipment, and teacher salaries. Money does matter for increasing achievement, especially in urban schools serving majority minority student populations (Vasquez Heilig, Williams & Jez, in press).

The issue of remediation is also important. While local leaders must ensure that students who fail exit tests have access to support, little research exists about the effectiveness of different types of remediation programs and local educators likely need guidance on the types of remediation programs that are most effective (Heubert & Hauser, 1999). More critical is the issue of early intervention: research has found that many schools wait until students have failed a test by which time intervention is most likely to turn into a test-prep strategy to ensure students clear the hurdle (Holme, 2008).  Data from 8th grade exams are early and important indictors of future student success in high school (Vasquez Heilig & Darling-Hammond, 2008), early interventions would stave off the time pressures faced when schools wait to remediate after students fail.

Our review has found that courts have largely supported states’ use of high-stakes exit exams, in many cases arguing that such tests are a way to remedy social inequality. Yet the research evidence to date suggests that exit tests have not yielded significant changes in either school performance or student outcomes for at risk students (Holme et al., 2010). Our review indicates that policymakers and educators who are interested in improving outcomes for at risk students should rely less on high stakes testing systems and more on a broader set of strategies and on multiple levels of accountability within the system for both outcomes and inputs. Indeed, while high-stakes test driven accountability systems in Texas and elsewhere have long focused data collection on outputs such as test scores (Vasquez Heilig & Darling-Hammond, 2008), rarely are data on resource inputs made publicly available. We believe that states should collect and make available information on learning conditions, including school finance disparities and teacher certification and experience levels between and within districts. This data would move educational policy from unidirectional accountability in which high-poverty schools are held accountable for outcomes, to a bi-directional accountability system that also holds policymakers accountable for learning conditions.

Citation: Holme, J. & Vasquez Heilig, J. (2012). High stakes decisions: The legal landscape of gatekeeping exit exams and the implications for schools and leaders. Journal of School Leadership, 22(6), 1177-1197.

(Click title above for pdf of article)

This post was written in collaboration with Dr. Jennifer Holme.

See also: Walking Away From High Stakes Tests, A Noble Lie

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Categories: High-Stakes Testing

Author:Julian Vasquez Heilig

Julian Vasquez Heilig is currently an Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Planning and African and African Diaspora Studies (by courtesy) at the University of Texas at Austin.

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3 Comments on “High-Stakes Decisions: The Legal Landscape of Exit Exams Required to Graduate”

  1. camb888
    December 9, 2013 at 8:28 pm #

    How interesting is this? Seems to go against the present reform agenda. “Money does matter for increasing achievement, especially in urban schools serving majority minority student populations” (Vasquez Heilig, Williams & Jez, in press). Also, “for at risk students should rely less on high stakes testing systems and more on a broader set of strategies and on multiple levels of accountability”, and “a decision or characterization that will have a major impact on a test taker should not automatically be made on the basis of a single test score.” While I agree totally with you, it doesn’t seem to jive with the nation’s present mandates on high-stakes testing related to the CCSS, does it?

  2. Monty J. Thornburg, Ph.D.
    December 10, 2013 at 12:52 am #

    The statistics presented on disparities with poor, Black/Latino, and the barriers to passing “high stakes” exit exams explains part of the inequity. From my point of view, the article found in the Dec. 2 Blog: “Celebration” Citation: McNeil, L. M., Coppola, E., Radigan, J., & Vasquez Heilig, J. (2008). Avoidable losses: High-stakes accountability and the dropout crisis. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 16(3) – Also tells how NCLB contributes to ‘push outs” and explains the inequity too.

    Many youth who are “pushed out” are the same students who too often move from one alternative site to another, and, too often are foster youth, homeless, transient, or farm worker children, for example, and fall between the proverbial cracks! Sometimes they fail to even take the exit exams because of how they are scheduled.

    If a student misses an NCLB test it doesn’t negatively affect him or her. If the schools’ attendance rate is acceptable it does not really impact anything. Exit exams are different! In CA, there’s one date for 10th, 2 attempts are allowed in the 11th and 3 attempts in 12th.

    Students’ who are “push outs” and move around, school to school, district to district, or are part of the “school to jail pipeline” or are in and out of various charter schools and other alternatives, too often miss the tests! That does affect those students as individuals. “Push outs” particularly are negatively affected and in my experience, these same students too often miss access to any counselor and test prep opportunities as well in that Alt Ed sites often do not have the same level of services as do comprehensive high schools.

  3. David Haller
    December 10, 2013 at 8:18 am #

    When teacher evaluations are tied to student proficiency, teachers will be tempted to move to high performing school districts to protect their jobs. The “better” teachers in the low performing schools are good candidates for positions in high performing schools. The threat of job loss for failure to improve the proficiency of students is an obvious incentive for teachers to move to high performing districts. High poverty school districts need to attract and retain high quality teachers, a task made difficult when teacher evaluations are linked to student performance on exit exams.

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