Exit exam hinders girls, non-whites, study says

California’s high school exit exam is keeping disproportionate numbers of girls and non-whites from graduating, even when they are just as capable as white boys, according to a study released Tuesday. It also found that the exam, which became a graduation requirement in 2007, has “had no positive effect on student achievement.”

The study by researchers at Stanford University and UC Davis concluded that girls and non-whites were probably failing the exit exam more often than expected because of what is known as “stereotype threat,” a theory in social psychology that holds, essentially, that negative stereotypes can be self-fulfilling. In this case, researcher Sean Reardon said, girls and students of color may be tripped up by the expectation that they cannot do as well as white boys.

Reardon said there was no other apparent reason why girls and non-whites fail the exam more often than white boys, who are their equals in other, lower-stress academic assessments. Reardon, an associate professor of education at Stanford, urged the state Department of Education to consider either scrapping the exit exam -- one of the reforms for which state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell has fought the hardest -- or looking at ways of intervening to help students perform optimally. Reardon said the exam is keeping as many as 22,500 students a year from graduating who would otherwise fulfill all their requirements.

“No one can be happy with these results,” Reardon said. “The exit exam isn’t working as it was intended.”


O’Connell issued a statement containing measured praise of the report but defending the exam, saying it “plays an important role in our work to ensure that a high school diploma has meaning.” Other officials in the Education Department reacted skeptically to the study, sharply rejecting its assertion that the test has no positive effect on learning.

“I’m not ready to agree with that at all,” said Deb Sigman, deputy superintendent for assessment and accountability. The researchers, she said, “don’t look at grades, they don’t look at classroom observation or interviews with children.”

But Russell Rumberger, a professor of education at UC Santa Barbara who directs the California Dropout Research Project, called the study “very sophisticated” and said policymakers need to take heed of its conclusions and perhaps consider an alternative test.

State Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) issued a statement saying that the research “reinforces the concerns that many of us have had about the exit exam from its inception.” She said the results “must make us all pause and take stock of whether the exam could be fixed or is fatally flawed.”

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. It has been criticized both for being too easy and for unfairly denying a diploma to students who otherwise might graduate.

The study, funded by the private, nonprofit James Irvine Foundation, is based on analysis of data from four large California school districts, those in Fresno, Long Beach, San Diego and San Francisco. Reardon said the results were very similar for all four districts, suggesting that the conclusions had broad application for all California schools.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that the exam was toughest on students in the bottom quarter of their class, based on state standardized test scores. That was also where the study found the strongest inequality of results.

“Graduation rates declined by 15 to 19 percentage points for low-achieving black, Hispanic and Asian students when the exit exam was implemented, and declined only one percentage point . . . for similar white students,” the study said. Low-achieving girls had a 19 percentage-point drop in their graduation rate, compared with a decrease of 12 percentage points for boys.


Reardon said he initially was skeptical of the “stereotype threat” effect, but that it has been well-established by social psychologists and appears to apply to the test disparities.