Are American graduates prepared for college as high school exit exams vanish in the US?

High school exit exams are declining in states across the country, eliciting mixed reactions.

An advisory panel in New York recently suggested that the state’s century-old Regents exams should be optional instead of a graduation requirement. This recommendation represents a significant change for New Yorkers and comes as the number of states that still require exit exams continues to dwindle.

Last month, Oregon officials extended a pause on exit exams until 2028. Lawmakers in New Jersey and Florida have also taken action or are considering measures to eliminate or weaken the tests. In Massachusetts, voters will decide on a ballot measure next November that would eliminate exit exams.

This trend is part of a longer pattern that has accelerated since the pandemic, which prompted many schools to reevaluate their use of high-stakes testing. It is yet another controversial consequence of the pandemic for American students, particularly regarding standardized exams, which have been criticized for favoring more affluent, white families.

However, these discussions about how to fairly assess student achievement come at a time when students and parents increasingly feel unprepared for college.

Supporters of exit exams worry that removing these tests could set students up for failure. Critics, on the other hand, argue that eliminating or reducing the graduation requirements may lead to more equitable outcomes in the long run.

“They work for some kids. They don’t work for a lot of kids,” said Bobson Wong, a math teacher in New York City who served on the commission proposing the changes.

On their way out: High school exit exams

High school exit exams on the decline

In recent years, the number of states requiring high school exit exams has significantly decreased.

According to an analysis by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, just eight states had graduation tests in place for the high school class of 2023. This represents a historic low, as the number has dropped from over two dozen.

Exit exams gained popularity in the mid-1970s as a response to economic anxiety and an increase in high school graduates. From 2002 to 2014, the number of states requiring these exams rose.

However, as more students were affected by exit exams, research began questioning their effectiveness. Studies suggested a potential negative correlation between exit exams and high school completion rates for disadvantaged students.

By 2017, some states began to abandon exit exams. The pandemic further accelerated the reevaluation of these requirements.

Students, parents concerned about college readiness

The debate over exit exams coincides with ongoing concerns about learning loss and college readiness among students and parents.

According to a survey by the consulting firm EAB, over a fifth of high school students now feel unprepared for college, up from 14% in 2019.

A recent Gallup survey also found that while six in 10 parents are confident in their child’s college readiness, four in 10 have concerns. These concerns are particularly pronounced among parents whose children are performing below grade level in math.