High School Graduation Examination

According to a 2006 study by the Center on Education Policy, two-thirds of the 15 million public high school students in the United States of America were required to pass a graduation examination to get a diploma of completion of studies. These are usually Criterion-referenced tests rather than multiple-choice tests, implemented as part of a comprehensive standards-based education reform program which sets into place new standards intended to increase the learning of all students.

When a criterion-referenced test is tied to serious negative consequences for failure, such as denying a diploma, it is called a high stakes test. Many organizations such as the NCTM have taken positions against high stakes tests, with the NCTM stating "placing too much emphasis on a single test or on testing can undermine the quality of education and jeopardize equality of opportunity."


No new states adopted a new graduation examination requirement in 2006. Utah abandoned plans to withhold diplomas from students who failed to demonstrate mastery of standards. 22 states currently require a test to graduate, 3 others are to phase them in by 2012. Jack Jennings of the CEP believes that there is a "kickback" against imposing this requirement.

Graduation examinations first appeared in the form of the Certificate of Initial Mastery proposed by the NCEE, led by Marc Tucker, in the late 1990s which was the basis for education reform legislation in many states such as Washington State, Texas and Massachusetts in the early 1990s. The paper "America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages" outlined a model that a new educational performance standard should be set for all students, to be met by age sixteen. This standard should be established nationally and benchmarked to the highest in the world. Students passing a series of performance- based assessments that incorporate the standard would be awarded a Certificate of Initial Mastery. This certificate would qualify the student to choose among going to work, entering a college preparatory program, or studying for a Technical and Professional Certificate, which would be explicitly tied to advanced job requirements. These standards would not be intended as sorting mechanisms, but would allow multiple opportunities for success; the goal would simply be to ensure achievement of high performance standards for the great majority of the nation's workforce. The states would ensure that virtually all students achieve the Certificate of Initial Mastery. Most of the current high school examinations are also given in the 10th grade even though US students are not considered to have completed high school until grade 12. Idaho is phasing in their requirement with a grade 8 level of achievement.

In the United States comprehensive high school model, all students are expected to complete 12 years of public education, with some students taking primarily vocational based courses, while college-bound students taking primarily academic courses, though education reform seeks to graduate all students with some work experience, and enough academic skills to succeed in college.