Effects of the California High School Exit Exam on Student Persistence, Achievement, and Graduation

Ben Hoffman

Sean F. Reardon, Allison Atteberry, Nicole Arshan, and Michal Kurlaender
Institute for Research on Education Policy and Practice at Stanford University
April 2009

The authors of this study employ longitudinal student data to gauge the effect of California's exit exam (CAHSEE, taken in 10th grade) on student persistence (as measured by the percentage of students remaining in school in their original district at the end of 11th and 12th grade), graduation rates, and academic achievement. The report compares the class of 2005, which was not subject to the exit exam requirement, with the classes of 2006 and 2007, which were subject to it. The authors were able to isolate the effect of the CAHSEE because the class of 2005 actually did take the exam (in the spring of their 10th grade, 2003), thinking it would count as a graduation requirement; the CA State Board of Education changed the policy shortly thereafter. The findings: low-achieving students subject to the exit exam requirement (i.e., the classes of 06 and 07) displayed marginally lower rates of persistence and significantly lower graduation rates than those who were not (i.e., the class of 05). And those from the lowest quartile who had a graduation requirement clocked in a graduation rate 15 percentage points lower than low-achievers free from the requirement. Furthermore, these effects were disproportionately strong among minority students and female students, which the authors blame in part on a stereotype threat: "the phenomenon whereby the fear that if one performs poorly on a high-stakes test it will confirm a negative societal stereotype about one's group leads to increased test anxiety." As for achievement, CAHSEE has no discernible effect; the authors found that students learned no more between the tenth and eleventh grade administrations of the state accountability test. It's not immediately clear why they would, though: the CAHSEE is given in 10th grade (though failing students have numerous opportunities to retake it), so it seems that the year prior to rather than after the CAHSEE would have been more relevant to examine. On top of this, the authors' graduation-rate findings could reasonably be explained; exit exams are supposed not only to standardize but also to raise the standards bar so it would be expected that graduation rates would initially dip. Finally, in regards to the stereotype threat, we're still wondering how the authors figure that the class of 2005 is a good baseline since those students thought the test counted when they took it. If you want to take a look for yourself, you can find the report here.

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