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Feature

John Robert "Rob" Warren

High school exit exams don't boost student achievement--just the dropout rate, according to research by John Robert Warren, an associate professor of sociology at the U, and a UC-Davis colleague.

A failing grade for exit exams

High school exit exams hurt but don't help, a U researcher finds

By Deane Morrison

May 16, 2008

About two-thirds of U.S. high school students face having their diplomas denied unless they pass "exit exams" that do nothing for them academically or in the job market and that lead many students to drop out, according to studies by researchers John Robert Warren of the University and Eric Grodsky of the University of California, Davis. The researchers studied the impact of the tests, which are mandated by 23 states, including Minnesota. Usually administered in the 10th grade, the exit exams are meant to ensure that graduates possess the skills necessary to succeed in college and careers. But when Warren, an associate professor of sociology, and Grodsky analyzed 13- and 17-year-olds' scores on the reading and math sections of the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, they found that exit exams had trivial effects at best. The study will be published in the journal Educational Policy. State exit exams also do nothing to boost employment or earnings, no matter the difficulty of the exams or the race, ethnicity, or previous achievement level of the students, the researchers report in a recent Sociology of Education article. Further, having exit exams in place correlates with a lower high school completion rate, according to a 2006 study led by Warren. "States with a relatively easy test have about a one percent lower graduation rate than states with no test," he says. "States with more difficult tests have about a 2.5 percent lower graduation rate." The nation currently has about 3.5 million high school seniors. If exit tests prompted one percent of them to drop out, that would translate to an extra 35,000 people entering the job market with no high school diploma, Warren says.

Unintended consequences

States began adopting exit exams in the late '70s and early '80s, says Warren. Because they are statewide, they should help all the schools and students in a state pull together toward the same goals and give employers and colleges a common yardstick for evaluating applicants.

"The cumulative evidence on these policies is clear: They should either be substantially revised to provide the benefits supporters claim they provide or they should be abandoned."

The exams are both expensive and politically popular, but Warren and Grodsky questioned whether they work as planned. They found no support for the idea that the exams help good students. "Most states' tests are actually geared toward assessing skills acquired before ninth grade. They're rarely at more than about 10th-grade level," says Warren. The tests therefore do little to spur achievement among better students, the researchers conclude. Nor do they lift poorer students to a higher level; instead, through their influence on the dropout rate, they appear to do the opposite. Warren sees two ways the tests could lead to high dropout rates. "There could be kids getting toward the end of 12th grade who have completed all the requirements for graduation, but can't get over that [exit exam] hurdle," he says. "Another possibility we're exploring is that given the motivation in many states for high pass rates and that the exams are administered in 10th grade, [schools] may hold back kids in ninth grade. "One of the best predictors of who drops out is making kids repeat a grade. Texas and Florida, which both have exit exams, have double-digit rates of kids repeating ninth grade. The rates are much lower in other states. I think most people don't recognize the connection between repeating a grade and dropping out." Exit exams could actually harm better students, too. Schools pressed to keep pass rates high may divert resources from better to poorer students. For example, Warren explains, a school may use money allocated for teacher hiring to bring in a general math teacher rather than a calculus teacher. Given the exams' lack of influence on student achievement and future employment, plus their contributions to the dropout rate, Warren and Grodsky mince no words in their recommendation. "The cumulative evidence on these policies is clear: They should either be substantially revised to provide the benefits supporters claim they provide or they should be abandoned," they say. So what does determine a student's success? "I think family, peer group, and neighborhood are the best predictors of success," says Warren. "The majority of kids' waking hours are spent outside school. What you do outside school is mostly with family, your neighborhood, and friends."