WASHINGTON - States such as Ohio which will require exit exams for graduating high school seniors are finding that the tests are neither a cheap nor easy fix for education reform and may increase dropout rates, according to a new study.
Such tests also have a far lower passing rate for minority and poor students than for white and middle-class students, the study found. On the other hand, such high-stake tests are toughening curricula.
The Center for Education Policy, an independent group that promotes better public education, received funding for the study from the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the William T. Grant Foundation.
Nineteen states have exit exams and five more are preparing to institute them next year. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 requires states to test all high school students in math and reading at least once between the 10th and 12th grades by 2005 and in science by 2007. The law does not require states to deny diplomas to students failing the tests. That's up to the states.
The new study found that while most Americans still approve of the idea of stiffening requirements for graduation and more rigorous testing, the amount of public resistance to exit exams is growing. Critics say it is not fair for a student otherwise qualified for graduation to be denied a diploma on the basis of one test.
Ohio this year instituted Ohio Graduation Tests in reading and math in the 10th grade. The graduating class of 2007 will be the first for which diplomas are withheld from students who do not pass the tests. In 2005, students also will be tested in social studies, writing, and science. If they fail any exam, they will get four chances to retake the test before the end of 12th grade.
Whether the tests increase dropout rates is controversial. The study said some research indicates that they do, while other research found they do not. The Center for Education Policy convened a panel of experts in March which reviewed the available data and found a “moderate degree of evidence'' that exit exams may contribute to higher dropout rates. The study said more research is needed.
The study said while the issue of dropout rates is murky, it's clear the tests “are not helping to keep students in school.”
The positive aspects of testing, which is enthusiastically supported by big business, is that there is a measure of what students know and that many teachers now are teaching to standards and getting professional development to do that. Also, schools are helping students pass on subsequent tries, and there is more emphasis on writing, critical thinking, skills, discussion, and explanation.
The cost of exit exams is high. The center commissioned a study of Indiana and found that it costs $444 per student to keep the current level of performance on its testing and that school districts get only 3 percent of the cost from the state. But to raise the scores to the level of “commendable” would cost more than $1,100.
The study said there's little data on tests' impact on students' self-esteem. A questionnaire in California found half the students said the exam would make graduating harder.