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Last Updated: 02/23/2018

 Article of Interest - Testing

Exit Tests Hurt At-Risk Students

Report: Dropout Rates Could Increase for Poor, Minorities
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 diplomas.

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 director.

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 them.

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 school."

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 evaluators.

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.


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