The "standards" movement has been brewing for quite a while, and one result is that about half of states now require something called a high school exit exam. Several years ago, there was a spate of stories about high school graduates being unable to read their diplomas, so states began adding exit exams to their graduation requirements in order to signal to employers and higher education institutions that a high school diploma meant something. It does not signal much -- exit exams are often based at around an 8th-10th grade level of knowledge -- but it should signal something.
Has it worked? At least one study looking at California's High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) says "not really." You can read the recently released results from Stanford here. The researchers made several efforts to control for variables that often confound social science research.
The study found that of bottom quartile students, those subject to the CAHSEE requirement graduated at a significantly lower rate than those who weren't (50 percent vs. 35 percent). Interestingly, while white students did not see large drops in graduation rates, minority groups did, including Asians. The Stanford researchers talk a lot about stereotype threat to explain why -- for any given level of performance on the California Standards Tests -- minority students had lower CAHSEE pass rates, but I'm not convinced on this point. After all, the California Standards Tests are tests, too. Why would the stereotype threat affect one set of assessments but not another? The difference in pass rates is quite curious and deserves more study.
The study's point, though, was not so much about graduation rates. After all, lower graduation rates are going to be inevitable if the CAHSEE is doing its job of screening out people who should not graduate in the first place. The benefit of such a test would be if it spurs higher academic performance among low performers who might on the margin make it. At least according to this study, though, there was no rise in academic performance among students subject to CAHSEE compared with those who weren't.
Personally, though, I think the high school exit exam phenomenon could be more useful for another reason. I think these exams should really test what a high school graduate should be expected to know. They should be extremely rigorous -- covering four years of English, four years of math, history, foreign language, etc. And then -- this is the key part -- they should be available to anyone who wants to take them, and people who score above a certain level should qualify for a high school diploma. That may include older adults (obviously the GED serves this purpose, more or less). But it should definitely include younger gifted students who'd like to go to college early and still be considered high school graduates. Why not? If you already know the material that is to be covered in high school, all graduating shows is that you also have an ability to go sit in a seat somewhere that someone else tells you to for 180 days a year. This probably is a valuable signal to employers, though our economy is changing in that way too. Few of us work in factories anymore. Something to keep in mind.