After sitting through four years of classes, hard-earned high school diplomas in hand, graduates will be ready for whatever comes next - whether it be college or a job. At least that has been the hope.
But in today's era of accountability, where schools are held more responsible for student achievement, few take such assumptions for granted anymore. That's why more and more states are adopting high school exit exams to ensure their students are being adequately prepared.
However, as studies home in on the results of these high-stakes tests required for graduation, the picture that's emerging is not a pretty one. While some students are rising to the occasion, concern is increasing about those being denied a diploma.
Many are the low-income and minority students who have traditionally struggled in school. In some states, minority students are far more likely to fail the tests than their white peers, according to a new study released by the Center on Education Policy (CEP) in Washington, D.C. In Indiana, for instance, according to CEP figures, on the first attempt to pass the state exit exam last year, there was a gap of more than 40 percentage points between the pass rates of white and black students.
Without more conclusive research, the CEP says, it's difficult to determine whether exit exams are causing more students to drop out without earning diplomas. Some experts suggest instead that these exams are not making the situation worse - they are simply attaching hard numbers to an old problem.
"One should not be surprised then that these tests reflect the larger socioeconomic picture of low- income and low-income minority students not graduating in the same percentages as middle income and middle-income white students," says Larry Cuban, professor emeritus at Stanford University.
This year, 20 states held mandatory exit exams. That number will rise to 26 by 2009, when 8 in 10 minority students will be required to take these exams, according to "State High School Exit Exams: A Maturing Reform," the third in a series of annual studies conducted by CEP.
But even as more states embrace the tests, questions about their use persist. The next challenge, suggest experts, may be to adjust their difficulty level - to make them challenging enough to be meaningful, but not so hard that an exceedingly high number of students are left without diplomas.
It raises the question of the exams' purpose, says Henry Levin, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College. "What is really needed for employment? What is really needed for further study? That is where the calibration should be done."
Back in the 1970s, the first generation of state graduation exams faced similar challenges and failed, eventually becoming so easy that they were of little use.
"The natural temptation is always to water down, walk away from exit exams," says Frederick Hess, of the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Hess suggests instead that the tests be given the time they need to "build a culture in even the poorest neighborhoods," where students understand they must work harder in order to graduate. In the short term, some students who might have slid through will be denied a diploma and this will hurt them. Eventually, though, he says "making diplomas mean something" will help more students than it will hurt.
"The point is not to lower the ceiling while you're raising the floor," says Matt Gandal, executive vice president of Achieve, a nonprofit group that works with states to improve standards.
Another pervasive concern among educators is that exit exams may be pushing struggling students to drop out, or opt to take the GED to earn an equivalency diploma.
The CEP study indicates that more research must be done to know for sure if this is true. But last year 43 percent fewer students took the GED as the test became more difficult - suggesting that there may actually be fewer alternatives for kids who can't pass high school exit exams.
"A lot of poor kids, poor minority kids in inadequate schools are facing a dead end," says Gary Orfield, codirector of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.
The difficulty of the tests varies by state. Most are moving away from the most basic assessment of math and reading skills to more in-depth subject tests.
While some educators worry about teachers teaching to the test, the CEP report highlights another concern - that exit exams aren't always in line with school curricula. In some cases students may be seeing material on the test that they haven't been taught.
If nothing else, says Carlton Jordan, a senior associate at the Education Trust in Washington, D.C., such bleak numbers are forcing "us to ask these hard questions that we never talked about before.
"We just kept giving out diplomas, and the world didn't stop; nobody was losing sleep," he says. "We should be alarmed, but we wouldn't have this conversation if we didn't have this data."