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FOREVER LINKED: Examining the Connection Between Exit Exams and Dropout Rates

In an Oct. 9 article for the New York Times, Richard Rothstein argues that the country has been so focused on raising standards and improving test scores that it has ignored a 4 percent increase in the high school dropout rate from 26 percent in 1990 to 30 percent in 2000. He suggests that states might want to back off the throttle and lower standards, or perhaps offer extra help to students most likely to drop out, until a reason for the decline in high school graduates is apparent.

In Massachusetts, members of the state Board of Higher Education have already held meetings to plan alternate routes for students who fail the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), but who want to attend community college.

According to the Boston Globe, roughly 12,000 students from the class of 2003 have yet to pass both the English and math portions of the 10th-grade exam required to graduate. Concerned by such a high rate of failure, Education Commissioner David Driscoll has suggested a “certificate of achievement” for students who have failed the MCAS test, but have met other graduation requirements. Driscoll’s suggestion comes partly out of concern that students could lose access to federal financial aid without a diploma.

Meanwhile, educators in Minnesota are breathing a sigh of relief after a study by the University of Minnesota’s Office of Educational Accountability found that the state’s dropout rate had remained unchanged since the advent of a state exit exam. The state graduation rate in 2000 was 79 percent, essentially the same percentage as in the previous three years. Only students who do not speak English at home and Twin Cities suburban students showed significantly lower graduation rates than before.

A recent study by the U.S. Census Bureau found that non-English speaking students across the nation faced difficulty graduating. As a result, many dropped out, or never enrolled in high school. The report found that the number of Hispanics who dropped out or never attended high school grew by 50 percent in the 1990s. The southern and western parts of the United States, where many schools struggled to accommodate fast-growing Spanish populations, were most affected by this trend.

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