High school graduation exams are in place in nearly half the states, and more than half the nation's high school students have to pass them to earn a diploma. There have been countless commentaries about the fairness of such tests, but very little research into what the tests actually measure and whether those expectations are reasonable. With the participation of six states, which together enroll nearly a quarter of the nation's high school students, Achieve set out to determine how high a bar high school graduation exams set for students.
After a detailed analysis of the mathematics and English language arts exams in Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio and Texas, Achieve reached three conclusions: First, it's perfectly reasonable to expect high school graduates to pass these tests — they aren't overly demanding. Second, these exams will need to be strengthened over time to better measure the knowledge and skills high school graduates need to succeed. Third, states shouldn't rely exclusively on these tests to measure everything that matters in a young person's education. Over time, states will need to develop a more comprehensive set of measures beyond on-demand graduation tests.
Achieve's 2004 study involved a careful coding of each item on each test using several different "dimensions" of content and rigor. These PDF documents elaborate on the summary of the study methodology:
- English Language Arts: Categories for Analyzing Content
- English Language Arts: Categories for Analyzing Cognitive Demand
- English Language Arts: Approximate Grade Level
- Demand Scale Adapted from ACT's Standards for Transition
- English Language Arts: Reading Passage Demand Scale
- Mathematics: Categories for Analyzing Content
- Mathematics: Categories for Analyzing Cognitive Demand