The history of school leaving exams in the United States is closely linked to the rise of compulsory public education in the 19th century. During the colonial era, education was largely the responsibility of parents and churches, and there was no mechanism for assessing learning beyond private tutors. As public education began to take hold in the early to mid-1800s, school districts implemented tests to measure students’ learning and progress. These early tests were often strongly focused on memorization, rather than the deeper understanding of concepts.
The first true standardized school leaving exam was created in 1901. Known as the Stanford Achievement Test, it was designed to measure student achievement using a common set of questions and assessments. This and other standardized tests were used – but often with limited success – in some school systems as a way of assessing students’ academic performance and achievement.
State-wide leaving exams also began to emerge in the early 1900s. The first of these was the Michigan Merit Exam (MME), which was developed in 1948 to replace the state’s previous leaving assessment. Since then, states have rolled out their own versions of the leaving test, typically the high school exit exam. Most of these tests measure math and language arts skills.
Today, many states still require students to take a high school leaving exam before they can graduate. Criticism of these tests has grown over the years as some feel they place undue pressure on students whose academic performance may not be accurately measured by a single test. At the same time, leaving exams remain an important tool for states to measure educational success and accountability.