Thursday, December 30, 2010

Eliminating High School Exit Exams

A suggestion I recently read was that California could improve school funding by eliminating high school exit exams. The exams cost an astounding $500 million per year to administer, and "do not lead to more college attendance, increased student learning or higher employment".

As somebody who used to be in the business of hiring high school graduates for low level work, that makes perfect sense to me. When you have a stack of applicants for a job, you can't realistically interview everybody. So how do you narrow down the pile? A fast way is to separate high school graduates from high school drop-outs and focus on the second category. And you know what? It's not an unreasonable distinction to draw. You're much less likely to end up with an employee who can't do basic math or fractions (and if they're weighing out food at a deli counter or working a cash register, you want them to know basic fractions, decimals, and addition and subtraction), and you have evidence that they will stick to something to the point of finishing it. I had some good workers who hadn't completed high school, but virtually all of them had higher aspirations than the job I could offer them, and often they were trying to build additional credentials (or at least get a GED) or were actively seeking out employment that would lead to better opportunities.

What difference would it have made to me that the pile of high school graduates was "certified" by some test? None. No difference at all. Similarly, if I were a college admissions officer looking at students grades and classes completed, what difference would the final standardized test of their high school career make to me? For that matter, what are the odds that a college-bound student would have taken a high school completion exam before applying for and quite possibly being admitted to college? And if I were a high school teacher I would either be at a school in which it was necessary to spend time "teaching to the test" to keep the school's rate of passage at an acceptable level, or I would be at a school where I could take for granted that the students would pass and focus on teaching my subject.

That money, it seems to me, would be much better spent by having high schools add additional requirements for graduation - more math, science and English classes - and hiring qualified teachers to teach those courses.


  1. It always seemed to me that exit exams were designed to deal with situations where administrators didn't trust educators - or for places like the DPS where "social promotion" rendered a HS diploma worthless.

    On the other hand, I suppose one glance at transcript would clear-up those situations . . .

    On the other, other, hand, think of all the money that Kaplan (or whomever) wouldn't be making . . .

    : )


  2. Yes, it's arguably a check on social promotion, but from my perspective as an employer that was not relevant to my hiring decision. I was looking at "dropout vs. graduate", and but for their limited hours the dropouts were less desirable as a group than currently enrolled high school students.

    I'm talking food service here. It didn't matter to me that an employee was able to read at the tenth grade level or understood the Pythagorean theorum. It mattered to me that they knew how to use a cash register and digital scale, showed up for work as scheduled and demonstrated a basic work ethic. Absent special skill or applied knowledge that you can demonstrate to an employer, there are darn few jobs that you can get straight out of high school that are looking for much more than that. And if you're so marginal as a student that the exit exam is necessary to document basic competency, I can't say it's a surprise that the added "rigors" of the test don't transform you into college material.


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