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.