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High school exit exams decrease arrests

Students required to take a high school exit exam are 7 percent less likely to be arrested, according to a paper by Prof. Matthew Larsen published in Education Next.

Only 11 states require a high school exit exam, which is used to assess a student’s overall understanding of his or her high school education.

Minnesota used to require an exit exam but no longer does. In 2013, the DFL-controlled Legislature removed the Graduation Required Assessment for Diploma (GRAD). While graduation rates have increased,  Minnesota’s high school graduation requirements have become diluted. We may be graduating more students, but an increasing proportion of those students are unprepared for college and other post-secondary options. (States such as Texas, Mississippi and Florida that require exit exams have seen greater academic growth among their students of color and more progress made in closing achievement gaps than Minnesota.)

According to Larsen, much as been written about the educational effects of changing high-school graduation requirements, but very little research has looked at its effects on crime outside of incarceration and employment rates. He pursues “a more detailed investigation using yearly arrest rates [from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program], which can reveal the immediate effects of an exit-exam requirement, rather than later-life incarceration rates.”

I looked at the arrest rates of jurisdictions and compared them during periods before and after graduation requirements were made more demanding in two ways: adding high-school exit exams and increasing the amount of academic coursework. I find that requiring exit exams decreases arrests by approximately 7 percent, primarily from a decrease in property crimes.

Students who face an exit exam have 2.2 fewer arrests per 2,000 individuals than those without any exit exams—approximately a 7 percent reduction from the local average. This effect may be initially surprising given the increased dropout rates associated with exit exams found in prior research. However, exit exams may have far-reaching effects beyond those for the marginal students who are induced to drop out. For example, exams may help refocus the curriculum, build noncognitive skills, and potentially affect the labor-market value of a diploma.

I find different effects on arrests based on the types of alleged offenses: there is an 8 percent reduction in arrests for property crimes and a 5 percent reduction in arrests for violent crime.

But how exactly do exit exams lead to lower rates of arrest?

According to Larsen, it’s complicated, but he lists a few possibilities:

  • The increased accountability of an exit exam could motivate schools and students to increase learning.
  • An exit exam could support students’ developing better noncognitive skills.
  • An exit exam could boost the perceived value of a high school diploma.

His analysis does show that the benefits of requiring exit exams reach into low-income communities and communities of color, but Larsen reminds readers that because these benefits are an average, such exams may not be helpful to every student. However, given the impact such exams can have on public safety, maybe there are further undiscovered positive effects.

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