Centralized Exit Examinations and US Education Reform

Judd Baroff, St. John's University School of Law Class of 2012, is the author of the first article in a ten part series from the staffers of the Journal of Civil Rights and Economic Development under the direction of Professor Leonard Baynes. Baroff writes on reforming US education policy through the introduction of high school exit examinations...


As has become a morbid joke in the US, we are an ignorant country, and our high schools are particularly deplorable. In 2001, 57 percent of American high school seniors scored "below basic" on an exam of simple historical knowledge, while only 1 percent scored "advanced." For example, 52 percent chose Italy, Germany or Japan over the Soviet Union as a US ally in World War II. They were similarly ignorant with respect to the content of the Constitution. For example, even though their parents underwent foreign and domestic turmoil to guarantee their freedom of expression, only 25 percent of contemporary college students could name a single right granted by the First Amendment. Furthermore, in a world that increasingly demands mathematical and scientific knowledge, children in the US tested far below average. In 2005, 46 percent of students could not reach a "basic" understanding of mathematics, while only 2 percent were deemed "advanced." Furthermore, these statistics were verified on an international level; of 57 countries sampled, the US ranked 32, behind such booming economies as Lithuania and New Zealand. Only 42 percent of Americans accept the validity of evolution, and 20 percent believe in witches. In the field of education, the only thing that makes Americans exceptional is their ignorance. There are many differences between the nations that outperformed the US and the US itself, but one significant common denominator seemed to be that most high-performing countries have a high school exit examination. Accordingly, the US might do well to adopt this policy in order to improve its educational system.

In March 2010, President Barack Obama attempted to solve the problem by reauthorizing No Child Left Behind (NCLB), altering the original legislation substantially. His predecessor, George W. Bush, originally signed the act into law on January 8, 2002. Its purpose was "to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain high-quality education" and to create "accountability systems" against which teachers and administrators could be judged. This past year, President Obama recognized that by almost any measure, the act had failed. Specifically, he attacked NCLB's system of "accountability," which wreaked havoc on schools by depriving the most desperate schools of sorely needed money. Unfortunately, he did not focus on two even greater concerns. Even though the number of "proficient students" had increased, the objective quality of American education sank; and the vague standards of NCLB had encouraged every state to dumb down its definition of proficiency to meet the quota that the act required.

Now, it is important to remember that NCLB is not a national exit examination. It demands a certain proficiency in fourth and eighth grade, but that proficiency is determined by the individual states and they can accommodate the federal "standards" by dumbing down the examination. A national exit examination would be a single examination that every person in the US would have to pass before graduating, whereas NCLB is a complex series of regulations that demand consistent communication between federal and local governments, constant new investment by states, and constant pain and interruption to students and teachers. If there were a national high school exit examination, the costs on all levels could be depressed by creating one examination (this examination must be spread over several days to be effective). Having one examination that does not change from state to state would mean less oversight from the federal government, thus lowering costs. Further, one examination would create one standard, the preparation of which would itself lower costs. If this examination was curriculum based, there would be no further interruptions into teaching—"teaching to the test" would become simply teaching the material necessary. Finally, exit examinations have been shown to improve the performance of those who take them as compared to those who do not.

Although no study of domestic cases to date has examined why students who meet external exit examinations do better than those who do not, two foreign studies offered sundry hypotheses. Researchers in a German study [PDF] suggested that a uniform, centralized standard was clearer and more accurate, while decentralized examinations allowed administrators and parents to inflate observed educational achievement by deflating standards. Meanwhile, a Canadian study suggests that the externality of the centralized standards clearly show students how they compare to their peers throughout the whole province (or country in this instance), as opposed to simply within an individual school; this makes the examination more meaningful. Therefore, students that learn under centralized standards are more likely to take their work seriously, improve themselves and believe education is important. Finally, centralized exit examinations demand greater levels of knowledge from the students. This allows for greater distinction than a simple pass/fail minimum skills examination, which, in turn, encourages the more intellectually gifted students to work, where a minimum skills examination would encourage them in lethargy.

Our nation cannot alter its dispassion for education by congressional order. Still, it can learn from Germany and its Canadian cousins, and focus on how to improve its schools. An externally created, centralized high school exit examination has been shown to improve the performance of students. It will also decrease money now spent on individual states administering multiple examinations and spent by students acquiring higher degrees in an attempt to make up for the failure of our current high school system. The freed money, and the freed time that will come with it, could then be reinvested in creating the type of nation that will "out perform" everyone else in the twenty-first century.

Judd Baroff, Phi Beta Kappa, interned this summer with the Internal Revenue Service and is focusing on tax law. He is also a competitor for the Frank S. Polestino Trial Advocacy Institute at St. John's University School of Law.

Suggested citation: Judd Baroff, Centralized Exit Examinations and US Education Reform, JURIST - Dateline, Sept. 6, 2011, http://jurist.org/dateline/2011/09/judd-baroff-reforming-education.php.




This article was prepared for publication by Megan McKee, the head of JURIST's student commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to her at studentcommentary@jurist.org

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