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begun to look critically at the level of skills assessed in their high school graduation tests, they face dilemmas in trying to raise standards on these tests (Bond and King, 1995).
For example, states wanting to test complex skills in their graduation exams face the challenge of ensuring that all schools are teaching those skills. Bond and King describe this as a catch-22. Before using a graduation test for high-stakes purposes (awarding or denying a diploma), a state must ensure that curriculum and instruction are aligned with what the test measures. Some proponents of reform, however, see the test as a tool for inducing changes in the content and methods of teaching. "Clearly, a test cannot both lead the curriculum and reflect the curriculum at the same time," Bond and King conclude (1995:3). One possible way around this dilemma is for test users to plan a gap of several years between the introduction of new tests and the attachment of high stakes to individual student performance, during which time schools may achieve the necessary alignment between tests, curriculum, and instruction.
In addition, lower-level skills are easier to test, whereas more advanced skills are not as well defined, and ways to assess them are not well established. Moreover, there is evidence that "any of the high standards that are now being touted … would fail an unacceptably large fraction of the students" if used for making high-stakes decisions such as awarding or withholding high school diplomas (Linn, 1998a:3). Thus, as states move toward assessment of more rigorous standards, there are numerous challenges in the context of graduation testing that remain to be worked out.
Current Graduation Testing Practices
In most states, students earn high school diplomas by accumulating Carnegie units, which are based on the number of hours spent in class. The system also ensures that students have passed certain courses, but this is an imprecise and nonuniform measure of what students actually have learned. Many states are therefore requiring that students also pass one or more competency exams in order to graduate (Mehrens, 1993). According to the most recent Council of Chief State School Officers survey (1998), 18 states have high school exit exams.1 In fact, graduation
The states are Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.