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SD School Data Helps Reveal Exit Exam Problems

— California's high school exit exam is under attack in a Stanford University report which concludes the test is not working the way it was intended. The conclusion is based on data collected from urban school districts including San Diego Unified. KPBS Reporter Ana Tintocalis has more.

The California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) has been around for three years. Teenagers have to pass the test in order to graduate and get a diploma.

The theory is students will perform better in school overall and finish school if there's a high-stakes incentive.

But Stanford researcher Sean Reardon says that's just not the case based on his review of test scores and graduation rates of the state's largest school districts. He says especially when it comes to minority and female students who are already struggling in school.

Reardon's data shows a nearly 20-percent decline in the graduation rate among students of color and girls since the exit exam has been implemented.

But instead of blaming it on a test bias or bad instruction, Reardon blames it on what's called "stereotype threat."

“Think of it this way, when taking a high-stakes test like the CAHSEE, white students and boys feel stress because they fear failing the test. Well, students of color and girls experience two kinds of stress. Both the kind of stress from fear of failing the test and stress from concern that if they fail it might concern a negative stereotype about their group,” Reardon said.

And those stresses cause students to underperform.

District officials had their doubts. Some say Reardon didn't go into schools and talk with students to confirm his conclusion. And people on both sides of the debate say there isn't conclusive evidence the test does or doesn't work.

Russell Rumberger is director of the California Dropout Research Project. He says the state should rethink the exam and look at alternatives. He says there are other kinds of tests such as end or course exams.

“Students take a series of exams that are spread out over a number of years, and a number of different subject areas,” Rumberger said. “That (alternative) might have a tendency to diminish (stereotype threat) because you don't take the test all in one sitting and it’s not an all-or-nothing test.”

California is one of two dozen states that requires teenagers to pass an exit exam in order to graduate.

Ana Tintocalis, KPBS News.

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