Friday, May 08, 2009

Do High School Exit Exams Work?

The "standards" movement has been brewing for quite a while, and one result is that about half of states now require something called a high school exit exam. Several years ago, there was a spate of stories about high school graduates being unable to read their diplomas, so states began adding exit exams to their graduation requirements in order to signal to employers and higher education institutions that a high school diploma meant something. It does not signal much -- exit exams are often based at around an 8th-10th grade level of knowledge -- but it should signal something.

Has it worked? At least one study looking at California's High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) says "not really." You can read the recently released results from Stanford here. The researchers made several efforts to control for variables that often confound social science research.

The study found that of bottom quartile students, those subject to the CAHSEE requirement graduated at a significantly lower rate than those who weren't (50 percent vs. 35 percent). Interestingly, while white students did not see large drops in graduation rates, minority groups did, including Asians. The Stanford researchers talk a lot about stereotype threat to explain why -- for any given level of performance on the California Standards Tests -- minority students had lower CAHSEE pass rates, but I'm not convinced on this point. After all, the California Standards Tests are tests, too. Why would the stereotype threat affect one set of assessments but not another? The difference in pass rates is quite curious and deserves more study.

The study's point, though, was not so much about graduation rates. After all, lower graduation rates are going to be inevitable if the CAHSEE is doing its job of screening out people who should not graduate in the first place. The benefit of such a test would be if it spurs higher academic performance among low performers who might on the margin make it. At least according to this study, though, there was no rise in academic performance among students subject to CAHSEE compared with those who weren't.

Personally, though, I think the high school exit exam phenomenon could be more useful for another reason. I think these exams should really test what a high school graduate should be expected to know. They should be extremely rigorous -- covering four years of English, four years of math, history, foreign language, etc. And then -- this is the key part -- they should be available to anyone who wants to take them, and people who score above a certain level should qualify for a high school diploma. That may include older adults (obviously the GED serves this purpose, more or less). But it should definitely include younger gifted students who'd like to go to college early and still be considered high school graduates. Why not? If you already know the material that is to be covered in high school, all graduating shows is that you also have an ability to go sit in a seat somewhere that someone else tells you to for 180 days a year. This probably is a valuable signal to employers, though our economy is changing in that way too. Few of us work in factories anymore. Something to keep in mind.


lefty said...

Excellent idea on making the exams available to younger students! This would address quite a number of problems.

But I'm afraid in practice it'll never happen. The concern in PA is that pressure to pass students will make the proposed exit exam so easy that it will end up even further dumbing down the curriculum for everyone, as teachers teach to the test and focus their energies on those who are least able to pass it.

J. said...

But it should definitely include younger gifted students who'd like to go to college early and still be considered high school graduates. Why not?


Good point. We considered skipping high school and going straight to college for our daughter. Many days I truly wish we had.

But you don't need these tests to do that, you just go and do it. I don't want more tests, too much time in school is spent taking tests. My daughter has said, I want to learn and all I ever do is take tests and quizzes. It's how most of the school day seems to be spent. Taking tests, talking about tests, preparing for tests of one sort or another and going over homework. If that. When does that leave time for learning, writing, researching, discussing?

You can skip high school now and go straight to college. With or without some test for younger students. Homeschoolers do this all the time. Doesn't necessarily mean they go away. They do dual enrollment at community and local colleges and coupled with on line courses and material the child and parent compile, I'd say you've got it made. I just don't want more tests for my extremely gifted child.

As usual, all this testing and standards tends to work against gifted kids, not for. Detractors will say, we're not talking about the gifted, stupid, the tests are for the other kids. Except the gifted get caught in the mania and their needs get drowned out.

I'm leery of any more suggestions about still more tests to compute, calculate and quantify the masses. Wholesale factory education. Blech.

Kevin said...

I had a hard time getting past the huge number of typos (mainly missing spaces) on the irepp home page. If I had a student who made that many mistakes in such a short piece of text, I would send them back to redo everything.

Kevin said...

Since the difference in effect between quartiles appears to be enormous, I would have liked to see an analysis with smaller bins (deciles, perhaps), since we can't assume that all students in the quartile have similar ability, and this may be masking the effect that they are trying to measure.