Passing an exit exam doesn't mean students ready for college

July 12, 2004

TAKS, FCAT, HSPA. These probably look like just a jumble of letters to most of us, but to high school students in 24 states, these letters mean the difference between a diploma and a ticket back to high school. They are the abbreviations for high school exit exams.

Students come to dread the exit exams required for graduation. But it's worth it once they get that passing score. They're ready for college or a good job, right?

Unfortunately, no. Too many students who pass exit exams still are not ready for college or for a well-paying job.

A study by Achieve Inc., a nonprofit organization formed by governors and business leaders to promote high academic standards, shows that most high school exit exams don't measure the skills students need for success in college or the world of work.

The report, "Do Graduation Tests Measure Up?: A Closer Look at State High School Exit Exams" (available free at on the Web), analyzed tests in the six largest states requiring them. It found that students who pass the tests in those states aren't necessarily college-ready. In fact, the "exit exams," more closely resemble ACT's EXPLORE Assessment designed for eighth- and ninth-grade students.


High school students need to know that passing an exit exam doesn't mean that they're ready to succeed in college. I've met many students and parents who assume that the courses required to graduate from high school are the same as the courses required to be admitted to and succeed in college.

ACT recommends high school students take at least these classes to be prepared for college:

  • Four years of English - grammar, composition, literature, etc.

  • Three or more years of math - algebra I and higher

  • Three or more years of science - Earth science, biology, chemistry, physics

  • Three or more years of social studies - history, economics, geography, civics, psychology, etc.

Many colleges also recommend:

  • At least two units of the same foreign language

  • Additional courses in visual arts, music, theater, dance, computer science, etc.

Students who followed ACT's guidelines scored two and a half points higher on the ACT Assessment in 2003 than students who did not. But less than half of the students who took the test took the recommended courses in math and science. In other words, many students who intend to go to college are making the choice to avoid courses that will prepare them for college. It doesn't make sense, does it?

When students are unprepared for college-level coursework, they need remedial (sometimes called "developmental") classes. These classes cost as much as a college-level course, but the student doesn't get credit for them. They don't count toward graduation requirements. It's a waste of both money and time for students to have to learn skills that should have been mastered in high school. Even students who enroll in community colleges, thinking they might not be held to as high an academic standard, receive a rude awakening when they are placed in remedial classes. In too many cases, this means a lot longer than two years to earn a "two-year" degree, and more than four years to earn a "four-year" degree.

An exit exam can be a good tool to see what students have learned, but it should be viewed as a minimum level of learning. Students need to go further to truly prepare themselves for college and for the future. If you're a parent of a high school student, it's a good idea to consult with your student's counselor and make sure his courses are the ones needed for college success. The hard part is convincing some students that hard work in high school will pay off down the road.

College requires a lot of difficult preparation, and students must have the foundation on which to build their knowledge before they arrive on campus.

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