Examining High School Exit Exams and Diploma Status: What’s the Impact?

NTACT: the Collaborative
5 min readFeb 3, 2021

Sara McDaniel, Lindsay Rentschler, Delia Kan, and the NTACT Knowledge Development Team

California State University, East Bay, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

What are Exit Exam Requirements / High School Diploma Statuses?

Meeting high school exit exam requirements and earning a high school diploma have been identified as a predictor of post-school success for youth with disabilities (Mazzotti et al., 2016; Test et al., 2009). Specifically, passing exit exams and obtaining a high school diploma are correlated with students’ likelihood of pursuing postsecondary education and gaining employment post-graduation, based on the current level of evidence which indicates that these are a promising predictor of post-school success. But what does this mean, and how can special educators, administrators, and families use this information to better support transition-age youth with disabilities?

According to Rowe et al. (2015), exit exams are standardized state tests on which students must demonstrate proficiency levels in order to obtain a high school diploma. These tests typically assess individual content areas (e.g., English, biology) but sometimes combine multiple related skill areas. Diploma status is a separate but related metric achieved when students meet the predetermined requirements, including earning the core curriculum credits, outlined by the state awarding their diploma. For many students with disabilities, meeting these requirements can be a challenge, so Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams sometimes decide for these students to pursue alternative diplomas. IEP team members must consider that passing high school exit exams and earning a standard diploma can open doors and provide a greater range of opportunities in post-school education and employment for young adults with disabilities.

Recommendations for States (Johnson et al., 2007, 2012, 2019)

There are many initiatives task forces, departments of education, and policymakers can do to increase the likelihood of the preparation of high school exit exams and diploma status occurring when working to support transition-age youth with disabilities:

● Analyze and address any assumptions behind the rationale, requirements, and criteria selected for each diploma option to ensure appropriateness for students with disabilities.

● Ensure students with disabilities have opportunities to learn the material tested on state and local examinations through effective services and support, including access to the general education curriculum.

● Use multiple indicators of a student’s learning ability and skills when making high school graduation decisions rather than a single high stake exit examination.

● Provide special testing provisions for students with disabilities such as the use of accommodations, alternative assessments (e.g., portfolio, special coursework), waivers, appeal processes, and multiple opportunities for retesting.

● Clarify the implications of providing differing diploma options on post-school outcomes (e.g., employment, education) for students with disabilities by following up with students post-high school and engaging with community stakeholders, such as employers and tertiary institutions, and local districts in defining alternative diplomas.

● Clarify implications of the varying diploma options on receipt and continuation of special education services for parents and their children with disabilities:

○ Consider advising to delay receiving a standard diploma until all goals and objectives, including transition goals, are met to allow for a smoother transition to post-school settings.

● Conduct research on intended and unintended consequences of the variability in state graduation requirements and diploma options to avoid making decisions that will perpetuate unintended negative consequences (e.g., unnecessary grade-level retention, increased dropout rates, students failing to receive a standard diploma at the end of high school).

Recommendations for Practitioners (Rowe, 2004; Test, Mazzotti et al., 2009; Thurlow et al., 2019)

School and district personnel supporting transition-age youth with disabilities should consider the following concerning high school exit exams and diploma status:

● Start the planning process early! At least 4–6 years before expected graduation, IEP or Section 504 teams should begin planning the specific steps needed to help students pass any exit exams and receive a diploma. Revisiting progress and goal setting toward diploma completion and exit exam preparation should take place at every meeting.

● Include families and students in these discussions from the start. Provide families and students with information on all the diploma path options and involve them in the decision-making process.

● Disseminate resources that support administrators and educators in preparing students to meet graduation requirements.

● IEP or Section 504 teams, in collaboration with the student and family, identify exit exam accommodations or modifications for the student and recognize that these may differ from the accommodations the student receives in the classroom.

● Provide explicit instruction on test-taking strategies and ample opportunities for taking practice tests.

● Maintain high expectations for all students with disabilities, adopt a strengths-based approach, and plan for success.

NTACT & Other Resources

NTACT Promising Predictor Brief — Descriptive brief explaining the correlation between High School Diploma/Exit Exams and improved education and employment outcomes

CEC’s DCDT Fast Facts/Resources Brief — Compilation of resources for teachers, administrators, and families related to supporting High School Diploma/Exit Exam outcomes

Status of State-Defined Alternate Diplomas in 2018–19 — NTACT report on 50 U.S. states’ use of the state-defined alternate diplomas three years after ESSA established use.


Johnson, D. R., Thurlow, M. L., Qian, X., & Anderson, L. (2019). Diploma options, graduation requirements, and exit exams for youth with disabilities: 2017 national study (Technical Report №409). University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

Johnson, D. R., Thurlow, M. L., & Schuelka, M. J. (2012). Diploma options, graduation requirements, and exit exams for youth with disabilities: 2011 national study (Technical Report №62). University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

Johnson, D. R., Thurlow, M. L., & Stout, K. E. (2007). Revisiting graduation requirements and diploma options for youth with disabilities: A national study (Technical Report №49). University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

Rowe, J. R. (2004). High school exit exams meet IDEA — An examination of the history, legal ramifications, and implications for local school administrators and teachers. Brigham Young University Education and Law Journal, 1(4) 75–137.

Rowe, D. A., Alverson, C. Y., Unruh, D. K., Fowler, C. H., Kellems, R., & Test, D. W. (2015). A Delphi study to operationalize evidence-based predictors in secondary transition. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 38(2), 113–126. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F2165143414526429

Test, D. W., Fowler, C. H., Richter, S. M., White, J., Mazzotti, V., Walker, A. R., Kohler, P., & Kortering, L. (2009). Evidence-based practices in secondary transition. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 32(2), 115–128. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0885728809336859

Test, D. W., Mazzotti, V. L., Mustian, A. L., Fowler, C. H., Kortering, L., & Kohler, P. (2009). Evidence-based secondary transition predictors for improving postschool outcomes for students with disabilities. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 32(3), 160–181. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0885728809346960

Thurlow, M. L., Test, D. W., Rogers, C. M., Klare, M., & Lazarus, S. S. (2019). Status of state-defined alternate diplomas in 2018–19 (NCEO Report 416). University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.



NTACT: the Collaborative

NTACT:C is a Technical Assistance and Dissemination project, funded by the OSEP and the RSA, Cooperative Agreement Number H326E140004.