College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Exit Exams Boost the School to Prison Pipeline

By Anthony Cody — July 06, 2013 3 min read
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A new study sheds startling light on a strong connection between high school exit exams and rates of incarceration. The authors of the study, Olesya Baker and Kevin Lang, compared states with exit exams to those that did not, and found that roughly one percent of students failed their exit exams and were denied diplomas as a result. This population of young people had a 12.5% increase in their rate of incarceration. The study found no particular benefits, in terms of employment or wages, from the exit exams.

Exit exams have been heavily promoted over the past decade or so, supposedly to insure employers of the value of a high school diploma. About half the states in the nation now have an exit exam as a precondition for a diploma, and billions are spent annually on the tests, and preparation for them. A 2009 study by Sean Reardon questioned the real value of the California High School Exit Exam, and pointed out that it had a negative effect on some students, especially minority students and girls.

But this latest study is the first to chronicle this particular link in the school to prison pipeline. One of the hallmarks of test-driven accountability is the penchant for ranking students, identifying some as academic winners, and others losers. The highest stake manifestation of this is the high school exit exam.

Other aspects of the school reform policy agenda also contribute to the school to prison pipeline. Schools under intense pressure to show test score growth are more likely to put in place zero tolerance discipline policies, which result in higher suspension and dropout rates. As we learned from John Merrow’s documentary about the New Orleans “miracle,” many of the charter schools there have very strict discipline policies, and the students who fail to comply are sent back to a residual public school that has been all but abandoned. Students who act out are increasingly being given psychiatric diagnoses, as early as kindergarten. The expectation that all students reach the same set of academic goals at the same time creates a rigid structure that makes students who are not “on schedule,” or not capable of sitting and receiving information for long periods of time “abnormal.”

The Gates Foundation has been a major force in advocating for standardization and the increased stakes attached to test scores. It was interesting to learn that the Gates Foundation last month bought a 3.2% share in the global security firm G4S, worth $172 million. This company operates for-profit prisons and cash handling services around the world, including several prisons in Israel and its occupied territories. [Update June 7, 2014: The Gates Foundation has now sold its holdings in G4S.]

The Advancement Project is one of many groups taking on the school to prison pipeline, as seen in this video that describes the problem.

Yesterday it was pointed out to me that CalSTRS, the state teacher retirement system to which I contributed for many years, is, like the Gates Foundation, also an investor in the for-profit prison industry. I am sending them a letter today expressing my opposition to this. I suggest all educators investigate to find out if their union pensions are holding stock in for-profit prisons.

P. O. Box 15275
CA 95851-0275

Dear CalSTRS,

I am writing as a longtime contributor (24 years) and soon to be recipient of the STRS retirement system.

It has come to my attention that the STRS portfolio includes an $8.6 million holding in the Corrections Corporation of America. This is a private prison company, which directly profits from the incarceration of thousands of our former students. Furthermore, this company has been found to actively write and lobby for laws, such as Arizona’s harsh immigration statute, that expand the number of people incarcerated. The United States has the largest proportion of incarcerated people of any nation on earth, and one reason for this is the existence of corporations like CCA which profit from the inhumane incarceration of our fellow human beings. I do not believe our funds should be invested in this manner. I urge the STRS advisory board to divest itself of all shares in the Corrections Corporation of America, and avoid investing in private firms that profit from incarceration.

Sincerely yours,

Anthony Cody

What do you think? Is it time to drop high school exit exams and zero tolerance discipline policies?

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