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The Relationship Between High School Exit Exam Policies, Student Transfers, and Attainment Open Access

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High school exit exams have become a popular policy tool in states as well as districts and even schools as a means of improving student achievement and holding students accountable. Despite the extensive use of these exams, the behavioral responses to them and their impact on student outcomes are not fully understood. This study used a nationally representative longitudinal data set--the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002--which tracked students starting in the spring of the 10th grade to explore the extent to which exit exam policies were associated with transfer behavior and student attainment outcomes. Transfer behavior was of interest because past research has found that schools that were successful in improving student achievement outcomes were not as successful in keeping transfer and dropout rates low (Rumberger & Palardy, 2005). Transfer behavior was conceptualized as a mediator to the likelihood of earning a regular high school diploma. The logistic regression models used to answer the study's research questions found no evidence that statewide exit exams impacted the likelihood of transfer between the 10th and 12th grades or attainment of a regular high school diploma. There was also little evidence that the intensity of the exit exam, as measured using a composite indicator developed by the author, was associated with transfer or attainment outcomes, although the intensity may be influenced by the longevity of the policies. Using a broader identification of exit exams that incorporated statewide exit exams, school-initiated exit exams, or locally mandated exit exams identified by school administrators, there was some limited evidence that exit exams were associated with an increased likelihood of transfer and decreased likelihood of earning a regular high school diploma. These results were particularly evident for the bottom quartile of performers on an achievement test (those most likely to fail an exit exam), while having no apparent impact on the top quartile of performers. The findings of this study suggest that school-initiated or locally mandated exit exam policies may be a confounding factor in analyses of the impact of statewide high school exit exam policies. Recommendations for future research and policy are discussed.

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