Can 'exit exam' be useful tool without being graduation requirement?

Measuring student achievement

Posted: Tuesday, January 16, 2001

Though not a glorious spectator sport compared to the Supreme Court's election of a president or even a local annexation fight, it is best not to ignore the battle over "exit exams" as a way to measure the achievement and needs of schools and students.

The requirement for graduation from high school has long been to navigate through course after course -- one year at a time. It's hard to disagree that incremental achievement through each grade leads logically to cumulative achievement and capability. It's also clear that schools work hard to develop curriculum systems that have continuity and ultimate usefulness for students.

This is true in spite of strong disagreements by citizens over what is "useful," and further complicated by the marketplace telling us what is "needed."

The United States has not historically attached much credence to using cumulative scholastic achievement tests as a prerequisite for graduation. There may be good reason for this.

People have largely believed that this country is a land of opportunity, within which some of the most important assets one could have are personal initiative and strong character. Solid grounding in readin', 'ritin' and 'rithmatic do help, but like wrenches and paintbrushes, they are tools for the brain to use.

Perhaps as important as hard knowledge attainment are the subtle lessons learned in school -- for example, dealing with people, your peers with whom you must live and teachers for whom you must perform.

There is still room in this life for people of widely different aptitudes and attitudes to successfully fashion their own lives. It seems appropriate still to view high school graduation not as some junction at a confusing freeway intersection but as the doorway to a broad open plain over which young people can build their own roads.

High school graduation, combined as it is generally with emancipation from much parental authority, is so steeped in our culture as a right of passage that we must take great care when placing purely academic constraints upon its attainment. In the same spirit, we cannot afford to demand that our schools provide so much more than purely academic mainstream education, and then judge their performance solely by academic achievement standards.

So, can we make good use of an "exit exam" without making it a graduation requirement? People may be more apt to embrace the test if we switch the focus away from a penalty (no diploma for not passing), over to more public recognition for scholastic excellence.

Leave the bar high. Since much of its importance was said to have stemmed from widespread marketplace concern about the low skill levels of high school graduates, let's have the kids take the test and use it in job applications much like the SAT or ACT tests are used for college entrance.

The kids who do well on it -- and work well -- will likely end up with the better jobs. This won't change things overnight, but the long-term effect (if we track the results) will likely filter into public consciousness as a glaring reminder that high school diplomas must be worth more than the paper they are printed on.

Mike Heimbuch is a lifelong Alaskan, who has lived in Homer since 1975. Among other things, he is a commercial fisher, consultant and frequent contributor to newspapers on the Kenai Peninsula.

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