Remediation for Exit-Exam Failure Proves Daunting

By Catherine Gewertz — January 09, 2007 7 min read
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Nearly half the states require high school students to pass exit exams to graduate, but they often lack reliable ways of helping those who fail. Facing the prospect of legions of nongraduates, educators are feeling the pressure to figure out how to assist teenagers who have stumbled at the high-stakes gate.

Few studies have been done on the best approaches to remediation for students who have failed their exit exams. But the clues emerging from those studies, and from other experiences in the field, are yielding early guidance.

Experts say the focus on requiring exit exams has largely overshadowed the issue of what to do when students can’t pass them.

“We’re demanding that kids pass, but we’re not paying enough attention to getting them prepared … to retake [the tests] if they fail,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, which has studied promising practices in remediation.

In an August 2006 report, the Washington-based research and advocacy organization concluded that remedial programs can be effective in helping students clear the threshold after one or more failures, but that more research is needed to find out what works best. It noted that schools have a tough time getting students to attend remediation sessions, and it found that holding them during the regular school day is more likely to draw students than if they are held after school or on weekends.

Many states and districts don’t require that students attend, however. Of the 25 states that currently or soon will have exit exams, only six require students to participate in remediation, the Center on Education Policy found. Eighteen states require districts to provide remediation, it found, and 14 pay for such programs.

Getting Results

The school district in Worcester, Mass., has been fine-tuning its remedial programs since 2003, and is one of the few districts with data to show their programs are making a difference. Of the students who had to retake the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, tests in 2003, those who had taken part in remediation sessions passed at much higher rates than those who had not, according to a study by the research group Mass Insight Education.

Extra Help Pays Off

Students in the class of 2003 who participated in remediation programs in Worcester, Mass., fared much better on their second tries on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System than those who did not.

Subject Remediation participants Other students
English/Language arts 73% 39%
Mathematics 66 40
Overall 66 39

SOURCE: Mass Insight, 2005

The district of 26,000 students has found several things to be pivotal in successful remediation.

Treating the sessions like a regular class—making them mandatory, holding them during the school day, and offering credit and grades—has been important, officials there said.

MCAS results used to arrive in September, but now they are available in August, allowing the district to notify students who have failed that they must “bump” an elective to enroll in a test-remediation class, said Chris Pope, who oversees remediation as an MCAS specialist at North High School in Worcester. Students work daily, in groups of about 10, with two part-time tutors hired by the district.

“It’s pretty basic, old-fashioned stuff,” Mr. Pope said. “We just bang away at the kids.”

If students find in January that they failed the November retest, they can continue the course in the second semester and take the test’s two sections—in reading and mathematics—again when they are offered in March and May.

Using intensive data analysis has helped educators tailor the teaching sessions, Mr. Pope said. He and the other MCAS specialists—one at each of the district’s seven high schools—use a computer program called Math Whiz to analyze where each student went wrong on the test.

The district’s centralized approach to remediation enables each school to learn from the others. The schools’ MCAS specialists meet monthly with district officials to examine data, compare notes, and make adjustments.

But the Worcester district still struggles with money issues. A huge cutback in state funding for remediation in 2004, for instance, meant that the district could not afford to hire certified teachers for its in-school program. Most instructors are nonteachers who receive training to do the remediation, Mr. Pope said. The state cuts also meant the district had to pick up the cost of the MCAS specialists.

Managing students’ flagging motivation is a perennial problem, according to Mr. Pope.

“After the November retake, most kids are convinced they’ve passed, so why should they do any more work?” he said. “Or they think they’ve failed, so [they think] why should I keep trying?”

Some experts worry about in-school remediation as an answer to exit-exam failure.

Sherman Dorn, a professor of education at the University of South Florida in Tampa, who has studied dropout prevention, said replacing courses in students’ schedules with double doses of English or mathematics to help them pass a test could fuel a decision to leave school, especially if the displaced courses are ones they particularly enjoy.

That possible outcome should motivate schools to build strong skills and preparation into the curriculum early on, to ensure students are prepared for tests, Mr. Dorn said. Students who need extra help should get it early, and long before the age at which the state allows them to drop out, he suggested.

Other scholars fear that remediation can take too narrow a focus.

“If it’s going back to basics for mastery, that’s valuable,” said John Robert Warren, who has studied the impact of exit exams as an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. “But if it’s just test prep—how to take a test, and probably even worse still, if it’s just prepping for this test—I’m not sure that’s useful.”

‘Triage,’ Not Instruction

By the time students have failed their exit exams once, however, schools often find that they have little time to build the mastery that eluded the students in successive previous years. It’s a prospect some compare to an emergency-room doctor’s work.

“A lot of it is what you call triage,” said David T. Conley, a professor at the University of Oregon’s college of education, and the director of its Center for Educational Policy Research. “You put them through boot camp. You focus on a set of key topics that relate to the test. In some senses, the instruction goes out the window because the focus shifts to getting people over the bar. It’s not whether they really know math, it’s whether they can pass the test.”

The most effective remediation would use a diagnostic process to pinpoint where students went wrong, tie instruction to those areas, and avoid reteaching material for the entire test, he said. But many states’ exit exams are not designed to produce that kind of detailed feedback, he noted.

Another tactic to help students pass retests, Mr. Conley said, is to build more practice tests into regular course instruction and begin that process early enough so teachers can see which areas need work. Offering online modules with practice tests and instruction can also help, he said.

Virginia has been seeing modest improvements in math and reading scores on its required end-of-course high school exams since it introduced online tutorials as part of its Project Graduation initiative in 2004, according to Tabitha Foreman, who oversees the initiative for the state department of education.

Washington state also is seeing encouraging preliminary data from using an online component in its summer school remediation for teenagers who failed that state’s exit exam. Students who took a summer class that included online tutorials showed double the gains when they retook the test compared with those who didn’t take the summer course, officials there said.

Mr. Conley has been helping Washington state develop an unusual form of remediation for students who need to take another whack at the math portion of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL. If approved by the state legislature, it would be offered to students next fall. The approach breaks the WASL content into three main sections, teaching and testing each separately as part of a class. The idea is to enable students to tackle the content in smaller chunks, said Ron Donovan, a math-initiative specialist who is overseeing the course development for the state department of education.

Passing all three sections would serve as an alternative way to pass the WASL. The state also allows students who failed the WASL to use an appeals process to get permission to use their grades or a collection of class work as proof of proficiency.

But even as promising strategies emerge, experts yearn for more research on what works best for remediation.

Lauress L. Wise, who oversaw a 2005 evaluation of such programs in California for the Alexandria, Va.-based Human Resources Research Organization, said his group found “quite a variation” in effectiveness, and scant data to bolster educators’ anecdotes of what did work well.

“There’s not really a clear pattern yet of what is effective,” he said. “That would be very helpful to a lot of schools struggling to try different things.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2007 edition of Education Week as Remediation for Exit-Exam Failure Proves Daunting


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