Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Poster Paper: High School Exit Exam Policies, Student Transfers and Attainment: Evidence from a National Longitudinal Study

Thursday, November 12, 2015
Riverfront South/Central (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Jennifer L. Whitson, George Washington University; Alexandria City Public Schools
High school exit exams have been extensively used as state, district, and school policy tools as a means of improving student achievement and holding students accountable. Despite the extensive use of these exams, the evidence base for achieving improved student achievement and attainment outcomes remains in question. Further, the full behavioral responses to such policy incentives (both intended and unintended) and their impact on student outcomes are not fully understood. This study used a nationally representative longitudinal data set—the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002—which tracked students starting in the spring of the 10th grade to explore the extent to which exit exam policies were associated with transfer behavior and student attainment outcomes. Transfer behavior was of interest because past research has found that schools that were successful in improving student achievement outcomes were not as successful in keeping transfer and dropout rates low. Transfer behavior was conceptualized as a mediator to the likelihood of earning a regular high school diploma.

The logistic regression models used to answer the study’s research questions found no evidence that statewide exit exams impacted the likelihood of transfer between the 10th and 12th grades or attainment of a regular high school diploma. There was also little evidence that the intensity of the statewide exit exam, as measured using a composite indicator developed by the author, was associated with transfer or attainment outcomes, although the intensity may be influenced by the longevity of the policies.

Using a broader identification of exit exams that incorporated statewide exit exams, school-initiated exit exams, or locally mandated exit exams identified by school administrators, there was some limited evidence that exit exams were associated with an increased likelihood of transfer and decreased likelihood of earning a regular high school diploma. These results were particularly evident for the bottom quartile of performers on an achievement test (those most likely to fail an exit exam), while having no apparent impact on the top quartile of performers.

The findings of this study suggest that school-initiated or locally mandated exit exam policies may be a confounding factor in analyses of the impact of statewide high school exit exam policies. Past studies of exit exam policies and their impact on student outcomes have focused on state-initiated policies. Little is known about exit exam policies initiated at local levels. Future research could further explore the design and impact of such policies.

This study was limited in its ability to detect an impact on high school student transfers because the baseline sample was drawn in the spring among tenth graders enrolled in sample schools. Since many exit exams are initiated in the tenth grade, a behavioral response may be more evident earlier in the high school years. Future longitudinal studies might consider drawing a baseline sample in the fall of the ninth or eighth grade year similar to the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 study design.