tests are the most popular type of individual accountability mechanism aimed at students.2

Bond and King (1995) provide a summary of state high school graduation testing practices as of 1995. State programs typically assessed 10th and 11th grade students, with some states starting as early as 6th grade. In most states, the student was allowed an unlimited number of chances to retake the exam, even several years after completing high school course work. All states assessed reading and math; the next most frequently assessed subject was writing. Every state used a multiple-choice test, often in combination with a writing sample, and all but one state used criterion-referenced tests.3 Of the 18 states that currently have high school exit exams, 9 use tests that could be considered to measure minimum competency in that they are based on 9th grade or lower standards.4

Two models are commonly used to combine data from multiple requirements and assessments: conjunctive and compensatory. A conjunctive model requires adequate performance on each measure, whereas a compensatory model allows performance on one measure to offset, or compensate for, substandard performance on another. Phillips (1991) points out that test-based graduation decisions typically follow a conjunctive model—students do not receive diplomas until they complete all required course work satisfactorily and pass the test(s). So although graduation decisions do not rest on test scores alone, passing the test is still a necessary condition of earning a diploma.

Some critics argue that the model chosen for these decisions should be compensatory rather than conjunctive (e.g., Mehrens, 1986). In a compensatory model, students with low test scores would be able to earn a diploma if they met or exceeded other requirements, such as getting good to excellent grades in required course work. Such an approach is


In 1984, 19 states had high school exit exams. This suggests that the prevalence of this practice has not changed much over the last decade (Reardon, 1996).


Only Nevada used a norm-referenced graduation test at the time of the Bond and King survey. This test was to be replaced by a new criterion-referenced high school proficiency test in math and reading, which was to be pilot-tested during the 1996–1997 school year.


This definition of a minimum competency graduation test is taken from the 1997 AFT report, Making Standards Matter 1997: An Annual Fifty-State Report on Efforts to Raise Academic Standards. The nine states listed in this report as employing minimum competency-type graduation tests are Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

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