American high school students are very familiar with college entrance examinations; they come in all forms. SAT, ACT, Advanced Placement tests are amongst the ones most commonly taken while still in high school, and many colleges and universities frequently require that students complete math and writing assessment tests after they're admitted to help place them in the appropriate intro courses. But until recently, exams that determined whether or not a student could graduate high school weren't very popular in the United States.
Many school systems around the world have intense high school exit exams. German students hoping to attend university must complete a series of subject exams not unlike the Advanced Placement tests to qualify for entry into the country's best universities. Like the AP exams, the higher students score, the better their chances of being admitted into their top-choice colleges.
Unlike the AP exams, however, students in Germany don't have the option to pick and choose which subjects they take. They're required to test well across a variety of subject fields, including (German) literature, English language, math, hard science and oftentimes an additional foreign language (or two). American students can always choose to opt out of certain AP exams. Can't keep the details of the Great Depression straight from those of the Dust Bowl? Not to worry, just don't take the AP US History exam and you're all set. Students taking the AP exams have the option to focus on their strengths in a way that German students do not.
What if he or she is a Carnegie Hall-worthy cellist? Or Julliard-quality dancer? What if he is a preternaturally gifted painter or she is fluent in three languages? None of those skills are evaluated, or taken into consideration when deciding if that person is ready to graduate a California high school, at least not according to CAHSEE standards. Certainly writing and mathematics are important, but can we really define achievement, intelligence and learning with such limited terms? Is a student who always forgets y =mx+b but can explain the causes and effects of the French and Indian War less talented than one who aces every math quiz but can't see the connections between major historical events?
Measuring student achievement is a major issue in this country, and there's definitely no one right way to do, but the important thing is that students, educators, parents and community members keep asking questions. Four years of learning can never be distilled into one exam, but for now it's all we have.