Many states use high school exit exams as a means of maintaining graduation standards across public high schools. In these states, exit exams are required for all public school students, and you must pass them to earn your high school diploma. It may sound scary, but they're really not all that bad. In this article, I'll go into detail on what exit exams are, what they're like, and how to make sure you pass!
What Is a High School Exit Exam?
A high school exit exam is a test that you must pass to receive your high school diploma. These exams typically include a math section as well as an English language arts section that incorporates reading and writing skills. Some include science and social studies sections as well. Sometimes states have a series of standardized exams administered throughout high school rather than just one. These are often called “end-of-course exams” because students are required to take them upon completion of specific high school courses in various core subjects. There are some states that require students to pass a set of end-of-course exams in addition to a comprehensive exit exam.
Exit exams are popular because they provide proof that a state's high school students are meeting basic educational standards. On a school-by-school basis, they are also sources of information about the quality of education at different high schools. Exit exam results can inform educational policy decisions at the state and national level.
Of course, there are those who dispute the merits of exit exams, arguing that they impose unnecessary stress on students and are essentially meaningless assessments. These detractors might make some good points about the dangers of placing too much value on exit exams, but most students still have to come to terms with the realities of testing requirements.
Twenty-four states administered exit exams for the Class of 2014, but policies change from year to year. Some of these states plan on eliminating their exit exam requirements (like California, which recently suspended its administration of exit exams), while other states plan on adding exit exams to their educational policy in the next couple of years. With the recent implementation of new Common Core Standards, there are lots of changes happening with these tests. Many states are moving towards making exit exams more challenging to align with new curriculum benchmarks.
Alas, the sun has set on the California high school exit exam (or CAHSEE).
How Do Most States Administer These Exams?
Each state has its own assessment system, and tests may be administered earlier or later in high school depending on the state. As an example, Texas requires students to pass two types of exit exams. The first is the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), taken in 11th grade. There is also the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR), which is a set of end-of-course exams taken at various times depending on when a student finishes a course. The TAKS has sections testing language arts, math, science and social studies. The STAAR includes tests in the following subjects: English 1, 2, and 3; Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2; Biology, Chemistry, and Physics; World History, US History, and World Geography.
Another example is Massachusetts, which has fewer requirements than Texas. Students are expected to pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test in English language arts and math in 10th grade. Students are also required to take one end-of-course exam in biology, chemistry, introductory physics, or technology/engineering in either 9th or 10th grade. Most of these states have basic exit exams that cover math and language arts, but many of them also add end-of-course exams in other core subjects as requirements for students. I’ll discuss general exit exams in the next section (math, reading, and writing tests) that are common across all of these states.
Lovely Boston, Massachusetts, proud home of the MCAS (and PrepScholar).
Is It Hard to Pass an Exit Exam?
Typically, high school exit exams are not very demanding tests. In most states, 80-90% of all students pass these exams. In one analysis of exit exams in Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, and Texas, it was found that the tests mostly covered material in math and language arts that students should have learned in 7th through 9th grade. Passing cutoffs are also very forgiving.
You shouldn’t worry too much about your state's test if you’ve been doing well in high school. Unless you’re in the lowest 5-10% of students in your class GPA-wise, it’s highly unlikely that you will fail your exit exam. I’ll give a quick overview of what the material is like and why an exit exam is relatively easy to pass.
For math, you’ll need to know basic algebra and geometry. Most of the questions on the math sections of these tests ask you to perform a certain operation rather than challenging you to develop your own mathematical model to solve a problem. This can vary slightly across states, but, in general, the math skills required to pass are not at the more advanced level that many students reach by the end of high school.
For the reading components of these exams, the focus is on basic reading comprehension, including the understanding of main ideas, vocabulary, and details in a passage. Exit exams tend to have very few questions that require deep analysis (which is troubling considering how important this skill is for college!). For the most part, questions test lower-level reading skills like making basic inferences and recalling information from the passages. Passages typically consist of both literary and informational texts that are written at an accessible level for the majority of high school students.
In the study mentioned above, across the different states, the difficulty of reading material on exit exams was roughly equivalent to that of the material on the ACT’s assessment for 8th and 9th graders. Some of it was at the same level as the 10th grade ACT assessment, but none of the questions were on par with the material tested on the real ACT.
Separate writing sections are also a component of exit exams in certain states. Some states choose to assess writing skills purely by giving students an essay prompt and grading them on their responses. Many also include multiple choice questions that test basic skills in grammar and sentence structure alongside the essay requirement.
Exit exams can be a hassle, but they shouldn’t stress you out if you’re doing all right in your classes. They are far less challenging than standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, and the passing cutoffs are generous.
Much more generous than these cutoffs, I'll tell ya that much.
What Happens If I Don’t Pass My Exit Exam?
Different states have different policies for students who fail these exams. Sometimes, students are allowed to submit high school “portfolios” of their work in place of a passing score on the exam. In the majority of states, remedial instruction is offered to students who fail the exams along with retesting opportunities. Remedial classes may be held during the school day or in the summer. In most cases, students will have up to four chances to retake the test. If you're curious about the options you have if you fail your exit exam, ask a guidance counselor or teacher how your school handles these situations.
How Can I Make Sure That I Pass My Exit Exam?
The best way to ensure a passing score on your exit exam is to stay on top of things in your core high school classes. If you’re performing at an average level or higher (B average or greater) you should have absolutely no problem passing the exam without any preparation. If you’re worried that you’ve forgotten some of the skills that will be tested, you can always go back and review material from previous classes.
For example, you might want to revisit certain algebra and geometry concepts that you learned earlier in high school. You could look over common geometrical terms and formulas since questions about how to find angle measurements within triangles and how to calculate the distance between two points (the distance formula) are common. Topics in algebra such as the properties of exponents, factoring, and properties of functions also show up on these tests.
You can take a high school exit exam practice test and do practice questions online for most of the state assessments. Ask a teacher or academic advisor for information on practice materials for your state assessment. This will help you to get a better sense of what the tests are like and how worried you should be about them. If you’re concerned about the reading and writing sections, you could try writing a practice essay based on an old prompt and doing official practice reading questions. This will help you get more familiar with the types of passages that are on the test and know how to structure your workflow for the essay.
You can practice reading the passages more efficiently if you tend to run out of time, but keep in mind that you don’t need to earn a perfect score. Unless the questions make you feel completely lost, you will probably pass your state's exit exam!
As long as you have a basic sense of direction, you won't get lost.
Already thinking about your college prospects? Find out which year of high school is most important to colleges in the application process.
If you're concerned about your current GPA, read my strategy guide for some pointers on how to improve.
If you're working on figuring out your schedule, read this article for some advice on which high school classes you should take.
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What content is covered in the CAHSEE?
The test is divided into two sections: math and English/language arts. The math portion covers academic content standards for grades 6 and 7 and algebra I, including statistics, data analysis and probability, number sense, measurement, algebra and functions, math reasoning, and geometry. The English/language arts portion includes content standards through grade 10, including vocabulary, reading, writing strategies and conventions. In addition to answering multiple-choice questions, students write an essay on a specific topic. It is a pass/fail test that is not timed.
Who takes the test?
Students take the CAHSEE for the first time in the 10th grade. Students must pass both parts of the exam. Once they pass one portion, they have met that requirement; students only need to retake the portion that they did not pass. Students have five additional opportunities to retake the test.
When did the test become a graduation requirement?
The class of 2006 was the first graduating class that had to pass the CAHSEE in order to receive a high school diploma. These students had their first opportunity to take the CAHSEE in the spring of 2004. Nearly 91% of the class of 2006 passed both portions of the CAHSEE.
If it is called an “exit exam,” why do students take it in the 10th grade?
The goal of the test is to make sure that students have the basic skills they will need to do well in the workplace. Starting the test in 10th grade provides enough time to help those students who aren’t able to pass so they can get the help they need before it is too late.
What happens when students don’t pass the test?
Allowing students to take the test in the 10th grade provides many opportunities to pass. Schools are required to give extra help to students who fail the exam by offering tutoring, special courses, summer school or other assistance. Students may take the test up to six times until they pass.
If students repeatedly fail the test, there are still other options available. They can take the General Education Development Test (GED), which is a high school equivalency exam for adults, or they can attend adult school classes to earn a diploma. Students who are at least 16 years old (or who have completed or are about to complete 10th grade) can take the California High School Proficiency Exam (CHSPE), which is similar in format to the CAHSEE. Students who pass the CHSPE can receive a certificate equivalent to a diploma, and passing the test allows them, with parental permission, to leave high school early. Students who are 18 or older, regardless of whether or not they have a high school diploma, can attend a community college in California.
When is the CAHSEE administered?
The California Department of Education provides multiple opportunities for test administration. School districts have some flexibility in setting test administration dates, offering testing dates in the fall, winter, and spring/early summer. You can see the testing schedule on the California Department of Education’s Web site.
Why has California said algebra is important for all students?
Algebra is an important skill for helping students to learn math reasoning — an important skill needed when students enter the workforce, whatever profession they may choose. Algebra used to be an important subject only for students on their way to college, but in today’s economy, all workers need higher levels of mathematical and technological skills. One example is that many trades such as electricians and auto mechanics now require algebra as an entrance requirement for vocational programs.
How will CAHSEE improve school accountability?
Reports of how many students pass the test will be an important focal point for school improvement. All schools in California are ranked according to an Academic Performance Index (API), which shows if schools are making real progress each year. A school’s CAHSEE results will be included among the factors that produce a school’s API. Schools that don’t meet their API growth targets are subject to state sanctions. The CAHSEE results are also used to calculate Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as part of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements.
What allowances are made for students with special learning needs?
Special versions of the test are available to help students who have special learning challenges. For example, the test can be administered in braille, audio CD, and large-print format, and when necessary schools will provide a scribe. Students with physical disabilities will be entitled to the same accommodations they have during classroom instruction. State law allows local district school boards to make determinations about these special circumstances.
What allowances are made for students whose first language is not English?
Students must pass the exam in English in order to graduate. However, test variations for English learners have been added to the CAHSEE. During their first 24 months in a California school, English learners receive six months of instruction in reading, writing, and comprehension in English. During this time, these students are still required to take the CAHSEE.
Can I see the test?
Sample questions for the CAHSEE are available online. Look for “released test questions” on the California Department of Education’s Web site.
Do other states require these tests?
High school exit tests are currently required or are being developed in 26 states.
Where can I find the law that created CAHSEE?
The requirements for the exam can be found in Section 60850 of the California Education Code. The law was passed in 1999 by the California State Legislature. Senate Bill 2 (O’Connell) authorized the California High School Exit Exam to ensure that those graduating from high school possess the skills necessary to function as responsible adults.
Thanks to the California Business for Education Excellence Foundation for providing information for this article.
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