The study speculates that girls and non-whites have been failing the exit exam in high numbers because of a "stereotype threat." "Stereotype threat," as suggested by psychologist Claude Steele, is a situation in which blacks, women, etc. are put off their pace by awareness that others expect them to fail.
The Los Angeles Times story on the study paraphrases Sean F. Reardon, one of the study's co-authors:
Reardon said there was no other apparent reason [than stereotype threat] why girls and non-whites fail the exam more often than [those] white boys who are their equals in other, lower-stress academic assessments.Here's what the executive summary of the study says:
Among students in the lowest quartile of achievement, the CAHSEE [exit exam] requirement has no effect on the graduation rate of white students, but a large negative effect on graduation rates of black, Hispanic, and Asian students.
On average, among students in the bottom quartile of achievement, graduation rates were 19 percentage points lower among Black students, 15 points lower among Hispanic students, and 17 points lower among Asian students who were subject to the CAHSEE requirement than among similar students not subject to the requirement.
Likewise, graduation rates were 19 percentage points lower among female students, but only 12 points lower among male students who were subject to the CAHSEE requirement than among similar students not subject to the requirement.
I wonder about several things:
- In theory, the stereotype threat should not be lowering scores for Asians.
- It should not be lowering scores for boys in the lowest quartile almost as much as for girls.
- Why is the stereotype threat working only on the lowest-quartile students? In theory, it should be lowering scores for blacks and girls in all quartiles on this high-stakes test.
(The authors anticipate these objections and attempt, not very persuasively, to respond to them in their paper.)
Without getting into my skepticism about some aspects of the stereotype-threat effect, let's assume that it's true or can sometimes be true. The need then is to accustom blacks and women to competition and challenges, and the potential would seem to be there for greater success when people have instead high, demanding expectations about blacks and women.
The solution cannot be to cushion blacks and women from all challenges (like passing the not-very-tough high school exit exam). [This is a point that has been made about the stereotype threat by John McWhorter both in interviews and in his book Losing the Race.] Life is full of challenges.
Getting rid of the high school exit exam cannot be the solution. The solution has to be preparing low-performing students to pass the exam and telling them that their teachers, parents, ministers, and other community leaders expect them to succeed and will accept no excuses.
California State Supt. Jack O'Connell and others put the exit exam in place in order to have a meaningful high school diploma. It will help the students in life if they reach at least the foundational levels of knowledge that the exit exam measures. The Los Angeles Times describes those foundational levels:
The exit exam, which students can take multiple times beginning in their sophomore year, includes math and English tests, with the math aligned to eighth-grade standards and English to 10th-grade standards.Abolishing the test and handing out meaningless diplomas to uneducated students will not really help them.
High achievement on tests stems from diligent effort and effective study habits. These need to be persevered in over time, so that knowledge, skills, and understanding can accumulate and be stored in long-term memory.
Blaming all problems on a stereotype threat and then giving up all high-stakes tests (as Reardon and others have suggested) will solve nothing.
[Thanks to Ze'ev Wurman for his advice and counsel on this post.]
UPDATE (4/23): A better place to look for advice is the 2008 report of the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) called "Predicting Success, Preventing Failure: An Investigation of the California High School Exit Exam," by Andrew Zau and Julian Betts. This report says that after-school reading programs and the use of peer coaches in professional development -- both instituted in San Diego during the Bersin-Alvarado years -- could help students pass the exam. It also says that the evidence suggests that intensive tutoring focused on academic content is likely to be more effective that less-intensive tutoring focused on test-taking strategies.
The Zau-Betts report also proposes spotting students early who are at risk of failing the exit exam. Then schools should provide them with academic tutoring in elementary and middle school -- rather than waiting until high school when making up the academic deficit is much more difficult.
There is room for improvement on the particulars of what San Diego did, but the Zau-Betts report points out an evidence-based path to better exit exam results: early detection, supplemental reading instruction, and intensive tutoring on academic content.