College & Workforce Readiness

Exit-Exam Trend Prompts Scrutiny of Consequences

By Sean Cavanagh — September 04, 2002 8 min read
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The two sides have squared off, armed with suspicions and doubts, but precious little definitive data. They dig in, scrutinizing every blip in test scores and graduation rates, trying to advance their positions through detailed reports, panel discussions, and stirring anecdotes aimed at proving their points.

Their quarrel centers on high school exit exams: the tests that an increasing number of states are requiring students to pass before they can graduate from high school.

With the rising use of the high-stakes tests has come a backlash. Critics say many students would sooner drop out of school, possibly to take the General Educational Development test, than face an exam they feel sure they will fail. And some detractors say schools and districts, under pressure to raise scores on the tests, may be all too eager to see those teenagers walk out.

Supporters of the standards-and-accountability movement, however, insist those fears are the unfounded predictions of testing opponents, eager to disparage exams that hold students, teachers, and entire school systems under much-needed scrutiny.

So far, 18 states have instituted such exams as a graduation requirement, and another six are phasing them in.

But test-takers and test-haters agree on this much: As more graduation exams take hold, and more students are denied diplomas, the rising debate over their impact on students—particularly those who may be on the verge of dropping out— will only intensify.

“By and large, these [tests] have pushed these students to a higher level of learning, and that’s a good thing,” said John W. Sipple, an assistant professor of education at Cornell University who has studied New York’s exit exams. “For the majority of students, it’s helping. It’s the last 10 percent that’s the really difficult part.”

Worries that low-performing students were being forgotten galvanized a group of adult-literacy advocates and directors of GED-preparation programs from New York City earlier this summer.

Bailing Out

In July, they came to Washington to discuss what they saw as an alarming trend: a rising number of 16- and 17-year-olds entering their high school-equivalency programs after quitting school. Some attendees speculated that New York’s exit exams, called the Regents, might be a culprit.

Several of the meeting’s participants recounted conversations with dropouts who said they quit school because they feared failing the Regents exam, which is offered three times a year, and which New York students can take any year during high school. Graduates of the 2000 class were the first for whom passing the test was a requirement. Over the past three years, passing scores have been made higher, and more subjects have been added.

Some advocates at the July gathering, without offering specific data, said they had seen a more disturbing trend: teenagers who had been encouraged to quit school and take the GED by guidance counselors or other school officials, who were convinced those students would fail the Regents.

“These students are not leaving school, they’re not dropping out of school—they’re being pushed out of school,” Edith Gnanadass told the attendees. She is the deputy executive director of Turning Point/Discipleship Outreach Ministries, an adult-literacy program in New York City’s Brooklyn borough.

Five years ago, only about 10 percent of the people enrolled in her eight-week GED-preparation courses were 16- and 17-year-olds, she said. This year, she estimates that proportion has jumped to about 40 percent.

For dropouts, there are clear consequences for choosing the GED route in lieu of a regular high school diploma, the advocates said. They recounted studies that show that GED graduates struggle more at two- and four-year colleges than traditional high school graduates do, and that they earn less in the workforce. Other critics have complained that the GED requires scant knowledge, and is far too easy to pass. (“The GED: New Tests, New Challenges,” Jan. 23, 2002.)

New York, like other states, is allowed to set its own age requirements for taking the GED. Students there as young as 16 may take the test if they meet certain rules, such as having completed the academic year during which they turned that age and having enrolled in a state-approved equivalency degree program.

As with other states, questions about the impact of New York’s exit exams have yielded plenty of research, little of it conclusive.

Just One Factor

This past June, a Cornell University study that polled 107 New York school districts outside New York City found that 28 percent of principals and superintendents said the number of dropouts was rising in response to changes in “learning and graduation” standards. Forty-seven percent said the number of students referred to GED programs had increased as a result of the standards.

An earlier report, released by the State University of New York at Albany in March of last year, found that 14 percent of 200 GED students polled around the state indicated that poor performance on the regents’ exam was a reason for dropping out. Both the Cornell and SUNY-Albany studies were commissioned by the state.

But New York state officials note that of the the 643 school districts listed in the SUNY report as having high schools, only 107 are represented in the Cornell survey. And they note the vast majority of GED students polled in the SUNY report said they had quit school for reasons other than the regents’ test.

James A. Kadamus, a deputy commissioner of the state education department, said his agency is monitoring whether the exam is producing more dropouts. So far, he said, the numbers don’t show that.

The overall dropout rate for a single year in New York City rose from 5.3 percent in 1996-97 to 6.5 percent in 2000-01, state records show. (The city’s four-year dropout rate for 2001 was 20.4 percent, according to one estimate, also up from the previous year.) The percentage of city students transferring into GED programs jumped from 3.7 percent to 5.9 percent over that same period. But state officials attribute those increases in dropouts and GED transfers to more accurate tracking of pupils.

Overall, the number of teenage dropouts in New York City traditionally is higher than in the rest of the state, partly because so many students there are behind when they arrive in high school, Mr. Kadamus and others argue.

Outside New York City, meanwhile, the dropout rate has fallen slightly during the past two years, according to state estimates.

“You’re left with the possibility that people are being pushed into the GED, but reality isn’t found in the data,” said Alan Ray, a spokesman for the state education department. “What you’re left with is opinion, or a fear that it may happen.”

Dropout experts also note that many students who are in danger of flunking state exit exams often feel pressure to quit for other academic reasons, such as falling behind on course credits.

The teenagers who end up quitting early are also in many cases coping with vexing problems away from school: pregnancy, poverty, or family lives that force them to move from school to school, said Terry Cash, a national dropout expert.

“The test is one issue in a long line of issues,” said Mr. Cash, the assistant director of the National Dropout Prevention Center, based at Clemson University in South Carolina. The tests’ influence, he said, is “not so clear- cut.”

Incentive for Failure?

New York isn’t the first state to contend with the controversy. In Texas, which began exit tests in the 1980s and increased their difficulty in the 1990s, researchers came to opposite conclusions about the impact of the exams.

Walter M. Haney, a professor of education at Boston College, argued in a 2000 report that as graduation tests became tougher in the 1990s, fewer minority students completed high school. When the state began rating schools and districts in 1993 based on student scores on the tests, schools had less incentive to keep students enrolled, he said.

“The institutions are in a better position to protect their interests than the students’,” Mr. Haney said.

But a year later, Craig D. Jerald, a senior policy analyst for the Education Trust, used different methodology and concluded that high school completion rates had risen over the past eight years in Texas. The pressure exit exams put on teachers and schools benefits students, said Mr. Jerald, whose Washington-based organization pushes for improved education for poor and minority children.

“When teachers know that students could be denied individual diplomas, they’re more likely to take an interest in the students’ academic achievement,” argued Mr. Jerald, a former research chief for Education Week.

Most Texas teachers and counselors were committed to helping students cope with the exit exams, said Brenda L. Melton, a counselor at the Alamo Achievement Center, an alternative high school in the 54,000-student San Antonio Independent School District. She was deeply skeptical of the notion that any counselor would encourage a teenager to quit to avoid a graduation exam.

“The kids we have now have been tested ever since they’ve been in school,” said Ms. Melton, who is also the president of the American School Counselor Association. “Yes, there’s some concern they have [going into the test], but counselors can make it a positive experience.”

In many cases, counselors can help students who have flunked the test before overcome “test anxiety,” she said. Ms. Melton points to the case of Alamo’s Ruben L. Munoz, 17, who had been sent to the alternative school several times for disciplinary reasons.

After failing several practice exams, Mr. Munoz took the exam again last March, nervous as ever, this time because he knew a passing score was within reach. This summer, he got the word: He passed. Now a junior, Mr. Munoz hopes his fortunes have turned.

“I was thinking about taking the GED,” he said. “But now that I passed the test ... Now all I have to do is pass my classes.”

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