Exit Tests Hurt At-Risk
Report: Dropout Rates Could Increase for Poor,
By Michael A. Fletcher, August 14, 2002,
As more states adopt high school graduation tests, an increasing
number of poor, black and Latino students are at risk of being denied
diplomas because schools do a bad job of preparing them for the
high-stakes exams, according to a report.
At least half the states do not earmark money and other resources to
provide special instruction for students most at risk of failing the
increasingly widespread graduation tests, according to a report to be
released today by the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based
research organization. If that continues, the group said, a
disproportionate share of those students will be denied high school
The report said 18 states, which enroll half the nation's public
school students, require them to pass tests to graduate from high
school. That number is projected to grow in the next six years, the
report said, when at least 24 states will have mandatory exit exams,
affecting about 70 percent of the nation's high school students.
"As states institute rigorous exit exams, we all hope that they will
lead to increased student achievement, but there is also a risk that
they will lead to more student dropouts," said Jack Jennings, CEP's
Among the states that require exit exams, between 9 and 69 percent of
students did not pass the math portion on their first attempt and 5 to
42 percent failed the English portion on their first try.
The pass rates are much lower for minority and disadvantaged students.
In Massachusetts, blacks and Hispanics were twice as likely as whites
to fail the graduation exam, the report said. In Minnesota, 80 percent
of all students passed the reading portion of the exams on the first
try, but only 59 percent of poor students, 40 percent of disabled
students and 30 percent of students who speak English as a second
language passed on their first attempt.
The report, whose authors said is the most comprehensive overview of
graduation tests to date, predicts that those disparities will grow as
more states add graduation exams or make the tests more difficult.
In the past, high failure rates have led policymakers in some states
to waver as they sought to implement graduation tests. In Delaware and
Wisconsin, lawmakers backed off on the decision to deny diplomas to
students who fail the tests. Other states, including Maryland,
California, Arizona, North Carolina, Alaska and New York, have delayed
using graduation tests or have lowered the scores required to pass
But now more states are moving toward using the tests. Typically, the
report said, most students eventually pass the graduation tests after
retaking them several times. But that could become harder to do as
states make the tests more rigorous.
"States are ratcheting up the standards and are making these tests
more and more difficult," Jennings said. "In a few years, the vast
majority of kids are going to face difficult tests to get out of high
The report said that in addition to providing greater support for
students, states should provide alternative routes to high school
graduation -- including waivers from educators, the use of substitute
tests or diplomas based on collections of work judged by a panel of
Matt Gandal, executive vice president of Achieve Inc., a Cambridge,
Mass.-based group that advocates high-stakes tests, said he agreed
with the report's conclusion that students should be given more
academic support. But he stopped short of saying that states should
strip tests of their consequences.
"We believe consequences can be a strong incentive to improve
performance," he said.