States requiring high school students to take more end-of-course (EOC) exams have higher graduation rates than those with fewer such assessments. A greater number of EOCs is also linked to higher scores on college entrance exams, according to a new report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative nonprofit education policy think tank.
As with shifts occurring in K-8 assessment, EOCs in high school are designed to be more closely connected to what students are learning in class and “assess precisely the content that those courses are supposed to cover,” wrote the report’s authors Adam Tyner, associate director of research at Fordham, and Matthew Larsen, an assistant professor of economics at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.
The report looks at how EOCs are being used, the impact of the exams on student performance and future policy considerations. EOCs are a way to “incentivize students to take their coursework seriously,” just as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams do, wrote the authors.
“Looking ahead, the use of high-quality, content-linked external assessments could help push our education system toward mastery rather than seat time — a coveted goal, especially among advocates of competency-based and personalized models,” they wrote.
The rise, and now fall, of EOCs
In all, 32 states and the District of Columbia have used these exams at some point to hold individual students or schools accountable. EOCs are most common in math and science, but their use in English language arts has been increasing since 2006, the report shows.
Chris Domaleski, associate director at the nonprofit Center for Assessment — who reviewed the Fordham report — explained EOCs also “took off about eight to 10 years ago” as part of the trend toward including assessment results as part of teachers’ evaluations.
“Having measures at the high school level that could be more directly associated with courses [or] teachers was seen as helpful to these initiatives,” he said.
But many states have moved away from those requirements, which could be one reason why the Fordham report shows a recent decline in states’ use of EOCs, Domaleski said.
Arkansas, Delaware and Oklahoma have dropped them entirely, Tennessee and Washington have reduced the number required, and Utah and Texas have passed laws keeping them from being high-stakes exams for students, the report notes.
Domaleski added states “are looking to reduce the ‘footprint’ of summative assessments,” and multiple EOCs may be viewed as more of a burden.
In Mississippi, for example, a state assessment task force has recommended dropping a U.S. History EOC after 77% of teachers surveyed by the state education agency said the state should discontinue it. Among just U.S. History teachers, 73% opted for dropping the exam. The state board of education will have the final say.
Using college admissions tests
EOCs are also more expensive than a single 11th-grade test, said Scott Marion, executive director of the Center for Assessment. And he said support for EOCs has declined as more states have moved toward using the ACT or SAT college admission tests as their 11th-grade exam for accountability purposes In California, for example, lawmakers are trying again to replace the 11th-grade Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test with the ACT or the SAT after former governor Jerry Brown vetoed such a plan last year.
“The dramatic increase in SAT and ACT has taken the air out of much sensible high school assessment,” he said. “In addition to these 11th-grade tests, many states are purchasing the ‘pre-ACT’ and ‘pre-SAT’ in 9th and 10th grades and killing EOC tests for fear of over-testing.”
Some experts argue requiring 11th-graders to take the SAT or ACT for accountability purposes benefits students whose families might not have registered their children for the exam or been able to afford the fee. But others argue the college admissions tests should not replace 11th-grade tests because they are not based on state standards, such as Common Core.
Impact on students and schools
The Fordham report noted there is a lot of variation in how EOC results are used. For students, the authors wrote, EOCs are a “medium-stakes” assessment because they generally count for only a portion of a final grade or are one of several ways to satisfy graduation requirements.
While the researchers found having more EOCs is linked to higher graduation rates, they did find that for black and Hispanic students, a science EOC can have a negative impact on graduating.
For schools, EOCs are sometimes included in accountability systems, “creating potential incentives and consequences for teachers and administrators,” the authors wrote. And they said even if no stakes are assigned to EOCs, they can still give states more “quality control over high school coursework.”
Marion added if states can afford the tests, EOCs “when done well, can be a good strategy for developing shared and higher expectations”