Stanford study criticizes high school exit exam

Three-year-old state test hurts female, minority graduation rates, study says

Graduation rates for low-achieving girls and minority students have fallen nearly 20 percent since the 2006 launch of California's mandatory high school exit exam, Stanford scholars have found.

The study, led by associate professor of education Sean Reardon, said the exam, which is first given in 10th grade to help identify academically struggling students, has failed to meet one of its primary goals: to significantly improve student achievement.

In fact, 18,000 to 22,500 California students fail to graduate each year as a result of the high school exit exam policy, the study says.

"There is no evidence that the exit exam policy as currently implemented has any benefits for students," Reardon said.

The exam has two sections, math and English. Students who fail it in 10th grade have at least five opportunities to retake the sections they have not passed. California spends millions of dollars administering the exam, preparing students to take it and offering remedial help for those who fail.

"Our analysis suggests that, to date, this is neither money nor time well spent," Reardon and three co-authors wrote.

Researchers found that minority students -- African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians -- earned lower scores on the exam than white students who had the same level of prior and current academic achievement. They also found that girls earned lower scores on the math section than boys who had the same level of prior and current academic achievement.

Ruling out race and gender bias and differences in school quality, the researchers attributed the skewed outcomes to a phenomenon known as "stereotype threat," in which students experience stress from two sources: fear of failing and concern about proving a negative stereotype.

"If exit exam policies like California's are to be retained it is imperative that they be accompanied by serious efforts to ameliorate their negative effects on minority students and girls," the researchers wrote.

The study used longitudinal data from school districts in Fresno, Long Beach, San Diego and San Francisco to estimate the effects of the exit exam requirement on "student persistence" (whether students stayed in school through the 11th and 12th grades), their academic achievement (as measured by their scores on another state standardized test given in 11th grade) and their graduation rates.

They compared that data to the same data for students prior to 2006, when the exit exam was not required for graduation.

— Palo Alto Online staff


Like this comment
Posted by John Barton
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Apr 22, 2009 at 2:59 pm

This can hardly be a surprise. Many of us argued at the onset of this test that this might be the result. This is a one way "gate." If you fail this exam but achieve everything else in high school you still cannot graduate. It is unfair, bad policy and now a study shows this.

It will be interesting to see in 10 years what percentage of these 20,000 students are gainfully employed, or are struggling or in jail - simply because they did not pass a test.

No other part of life has higher stakes than this three hour test. It is time to end it.

John Barton, former PAUSD Trustee.

Like this comment
Posted by Kevin
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 22, 2009 at 3:05 pm

This test was instituted becasue the former system was a failure. A high school diploma meant nothing more than having met the minimum standards of attendance. Now we have some (minimal) standards. It is time to get a grip and demand more from our students, and from our system. No more pathetic excuses.

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 22, 2009 at 3:34 pm

This test is the absolute rock bottom benchmark. Both my kids (who have different academic strengths) easily passed it as 10th graders. No problem whatsoever.
I would argue that social promotion (promoting a student from grade to grade when they can't do the 3 R's) does not do them any service, Mr. Barton.

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 22, 2009 at 4:36 pm

I'm in 10th grade and took the CAHSEE about a month ago. It was REALLY easy, just the basics. Although there may be problems with it, we need some way of keeping kids that don't learn the material from graduating. If it were up to me I would make it harder.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 22, 2009 at 5:04 pm

Stop making excuses for those who cannot pass the test. It is not hard. It is not a problem for anyone who expects to do well in life.

If someone is unable to pass this test, then it is unlikely that they will be able to keep down even the simplest job that requires keeping records, using written text, or in fact using their head. If these people are unable to pass the tests then they probably are not good for many types of work. Those that are not passing the test probably could not keep a job that requires educational skills. Those that don't pass the test cannot blame the test for them not getting a job, or for putting them in jail!

Don't dumb down the test - improve the education system instead.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 22, 2009 at 8:04 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

What kind of distribution do they get if they eliminate gender and race from the study? Bell curve?

Like this comment
Posted by Mom
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 23, 2009 at 9:52 am

It's math programs such as Everyday Math which are hurting the children. Everyday Math encourages calculator use beginning in kindergarten. And Everyday math doesn't teach children how to efficiently calculate a math problem. Everyday Math: "Long division is no longer needed because of the widespread availability of calculators."

Calculators are not allowed while taking the high school exit exam.

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 23, 2009 at 10:58 am

I think the key quote is that the test is a failure as it is currently other words, the schools (not PAUSD obviously) where the graduation rates have fallen (due to poor test results) have not done their jobs.

If an overwhelming majority of PAUSD 10th grade students can pass the test on the first try --- then certainly the other schools should be able to fix their issues before their kids graduate. Think about it --- 5 attempts allowed!

Like this comment
Posted by Neal
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 23, 2009 at 1:18 pm

The test did exactly what it was supposed to do--test minimal competentcy. The incompetent shouldn't get a highschool diploma. Please, spare me the psychobabble about all these kids under performing because of stress.

Like this comment
Posted by Read the article
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Apr 23, 2009 at 3:54 pm

I think people are misreading the article.

The point is not that people can't pass the test - it is the mere existence of the test is leading to additional problems.

There is absolutely no excuse for a first world country not to have a 90%+ graduation rate.

Everyone in Palo Alto thinks this is not our problem - but it is. As long as most of the schools in the Bay Area are bad, we'll continue to have unbelievable pressures to grow.

Like this comment
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 23, 2009 at 5:21 pm

The goal of the test was to increase the achievement level of high school graduates, but all the test is doing is preventing the graduation of some students (disproportionatly minority an female). The test does not seem to be providing an incentive to do better, just creating fear that you will not pass.

Like this comment
Posted by Neal
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 23, 2009 at 5:51 pm

Wake up. The mere existence of the test is not the problem. Don't blame the test. Don't blame the schools and don't blame the teachers. Students aren't graduating because they are not willing to put in the effort and don't get parental support. The schools aren't abandoning the students. The students are quiting the schools.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 23, 2009 at 6:00 pm

If students are not passing in a particular school district, regardless of their demographics, then the district is doing something wrong. They can blame it on money (the popular cause to blame), the teachers, the parents, the system, but it comes down to the students. If students are not prepared by 10th grade, they still have 2 years to improve. Even if their English language skills are not up to par, they still have 2 years to improve.

I feel sure that those failing are not new immigrants using language as an excuse. Most new immigrants under the age of 16 are able to pick up English much quicker than adults.

If the school districts are not able to get their students to pass, then they should look into the earlier grade levels and bring up their standards there. They should ensure that there are no students slipping through annual graduation without skills for the next grade. And, if a newly immigrated student has poor English, then put them down a grade or hold them back a grade.

These schools must not progress students who are not reaching grade level. If they are poor at math and English skills, then keep them back.

If students are not able to pass this test then they should not be getting diplomas. Period.

Like this comment
Posted by PointOfView
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 23, 2009 at 9:03 pm

So much spin and miscommunication.

Note that girls do better than boys on this test. There is no discrimination against girls; the problem that the test exposed is that struggling girls do even worse than struggling boys on this test, even though they do as well as the same boys on other tests.

This is useful information. The study analyst concludes that there is some difference between the way struggling girls perform on high-stakes tests vs. boys.

This is good to know and should be addressed. Choosing a mortgage is high-stakes. If girls who struggle with math do not apply their full math ability in high stakes situations, this is a problem the schools or girls' parents may be able to mitigate.

Changing the test so that it hides this difference is counter productive.

There is no evidence that the test has improved student achievement.

But would we expect student achievement to improve during this period of increased unemployment, divorce, and stress? We need to look at other severe recessions and compare changes in student achievement to determine the impact of these tests.

Like this comment
Posted by Hugh
a resident of Terman Middle School
on Apr 24, 2009 at 6:43 pm

A former PAUSD Trustee suggests that this test is "unfair and bad policy"
I would argue that it is profoundly more unfair to keep passing on students who can't compete at a basic level. Our schools have turned out students for far too long that can't compete on a worldwide scale. The problem is not with requiring students to pass a basic exit exam but rather with not giving all students the tools and knowledge to pass this simple test.

Another failure of our schools is in not recognizing that all students aren't headed for higher learning. Many students who struggle with these exit exams could be more suited to crafts or trades but our Trustees have eliminated that path from our education system. I suggest that since we have been given only one path for High School students to follow, then we must accept that they should all meet the given criteria for graduation.

I believe that the schools should allow for both academic as well as creative paths for education. That way both types of students could excel at their chosen educational goals.

Our Trustees can't have it both ways, either you allow for creativity AND scholarly pursuits or you have one group or the other failing exit exams.

Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 27, 2009 at 12:14 pm

After plenty of years experiencing what life throws our way daily-I would have to say that almost everything we all are involved in as we conduct our lives is to some extent a test. Some are little tests with little consequences, and some not. The idea that testing is stressful means that if we eliminate this test a lot of people are going to be that much more ill-equipped to navigate life, jobs and society.

The arguements against the graduation test do not make much logical sense. I believe they are either justification for teaching (in many schools)to continue in the same grossly inadequate way, or as cover for social engineering. Neither is going to produce the kind of people this country needs to suceed in the future.

Like this comment
Posted by Student
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 27, 2009 at 11:09 pm

The test is so pathetically easy that the idea that it's supposed to show high-school level competence is insulting. If a student cannot pass it (especially after being allowed to retake it FIVE TIMES), then there is something seriously wrong with them and they should not be allowed to graduate high school.

Gender and racial differences/analysis should be completely irrelevant at this level.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

A New Way to Think About High Speed Rail
By Steve Levy | 14 comments | 1,796 views

Twenty Years in the Sixties: How an Alcoholic Hippie Became a Self-Giving Servant
By Aldis Petriceks | 0 comments | 1,656 views

Sweet Potato Canapé and Food Party! Holiday Favorites
By Laura Stec | 0 comments | 980 views

Couples: Slowing Down & Content and Process Conversation
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 876 views


The holidays are here!

From live music to a visit with Santa, here's a look at some local holiday activities to help you get into the spirit of the season.