Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Must We Give Up High School Exit Exams?

Education school researchers at U.C. Davis and Stanford assert that California's high school exit exam is keeping girls and non-whites from graduating from high school.

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.
There would seem to be many difficulties for stereotype threat as the explanation for the results.

(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.

46 comments:

  1. The following statement is insensitive to students who have learning disabilities.

    "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."

    Our public school system is not equipped to help all students with learning disabilities in elementary and middle school and intensive tutoring is not available in public school.

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  2. i think you should not have to take the exit exams because it takes advantage of foreigners and special kids because those kids cant learn as fast as others and they still have to take the test and that isnt an advantage

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  3. I feel like it is a form of punishment to kids who go to school 13 years and then can't get out if they don't pass a test. For years before they started giving the test, people did just fine. Stop the stupid test.

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  5. I think there is something wrong in there or the report. In my experience girls do better than the boys. Plus there are large asian communities around Los Angeles area. I know very well that especially Korean boys and girls are very bright and hard working to leg behind anyone. I am sure it is the case for Indian and Chinese ones.

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  7. Always interesting to go back and read what was going on 2 years ago then compare to the recent advancements in our school systems.

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  8. Perhaps the students in the lower percentiles are more susceptible to the so-called stereotype threat? However, this does not make sense with the Asian students as they seem to have the opposite expectations, the expectation of success as any price. What are some other possible explanations? That would be interesting to find out.

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  9. The so-called "stereotype threat" does not really make sense. As the previous commenter mentioned Asian students tend to have the opposite expectations. Are there other possibilities?

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  13. Stop the test if the teacher's would do their jobs there would be no need for an exit exam.

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  22. I think it's ridiculous to consider giving up the exit exams... if the students aren't capable of graduation then that says something more about the educational system!

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  23. give up on exit exams? Seems we have given up on the system in its entirety. if parents can't get involved with their kids' learning than it aint gonna work

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