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HIGH-STAKES TESTING AND STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT: New Study Adds Fuel to the Debate Around High-Stakes Tests’ Effect on Graduation Rates

"This most recent research demonstrates that the pressure to produce high test scores as a result of No Child Left Behind hasn't helped students to achieve more, and has served to limit the depth and breadth of what students are being taught in schools around the country," said Teri Moblo, director of the Great Lakes Center.

Increased pressure associated with high-stakes testing is related to higher dropout rates, according to a new study by the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University and the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. The study, High-Stakes Testing and Student Achievement: Problems for the No Child Left Behind Act, is the latest addition to the growing debate about the effect high-stakes tests have on graduation rates.

“This most recent research demonstrates that the pressure to produce high test scores as a result of No Child Left Behind hasn’t helped students to achieve more, and has served to limit the depth and breadth of what students are being taught in schools around the country,” said Teri Moblo, director of the Great Lakes Center.

As part of the study, researchers examined the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test data from twenty-five states and created a “Pressure Rating Index” that ranked states on how much pressure they put on schools to improve test scores. The results suggest that not only does the pressure of high-stakes testing not impact student achievement, it also lowers the likelihood that eighth- and tenth-grade students will eventually move into twelfth grade. The study also found that states with higher concentrations of minority students tend to implement accountability systems that exert greater pressure, and as a result, the negative impact of high-stakes testing disproportionately affects America’s minority students.

A report released last year by the Urban Institute and the Harvard Civil Rights Project, Losing Our Future: How Minority Youth Are Being Left Behind by the Graduation Rate Crisis, also cites research that suggests that the use of high-stakes tests drives down the graduation rate. “Schools and districts may find it easier and more cost-effective to raise overall test scores by removing low-performing students from the test-taking pool than investing in the resources and programs needed to improve the academic performance of struggling students,” it reads. (More information on this report is available here.)

On the other hand, a 2004 report from the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Pushed Out or Pulled Up? Exit Exams and Dropout Rates in Public High Schools, says that “implementing a high school exit exam has no significant effect on a state’s graduation rate . . . positive or negative. If any such effect exists, it cannot be distinguished from ordinary fluctuations in graduation rates.” (More information on this report is available here.)

While the debate continues, other research has shown that the use of “multiple measures” to assess student achievement, in contrast to a single test, can provide broader means for students to demonstrate their learning, better strategies for schools to evaluate the full range of standards, and rich individualized information about student learning. Multiple Measures Approaches to High School Graduation, a report released earlier this year by Stanford University’s School Redesign Network, argues that approaches which examine a range of student work to demonstrate proficiency-such as student portfolios, essays, and research projects-have helped to raise achievement, and have done so without increasing dropout rates. (More information is available here.)

High-Stakes Testing and Student Achievement: Problems for the No Child Left Behind Act is available at


California High School Seniors Still Struggle to Pass State Graduation Exam: Minorities and Special Education Students Disproportionately Affected 

Close to 100,000 California high school seniors–approximately 10 percent of the senior class-have not passed the state’s graduation exam, according to a report released in late September by the Virginia-based Human Resources Research Organization. The report found that only 63 percent of African-American and 68 percent of Hispanic students have passed the exam, while 89 percent of Asian and 90 percent of white students have passed. The class of 2006 is the first group that must pass both the English and math sections of the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) in order to graduate.

“Clearly, we need to have some options for these students,” Lauress L. Wise, the firm’s president, told reporters in a conference call. The report suggested that seniors could submit portfolios of work that demonstrate mastery of English and math. It also proposed that schools allow students to spend an extra year in high school or earn diplomas by completing special summer sessions.

The exit exam only tests on an eighth-grade level in math and on ninth- and tenth-grade levels in English, but students in special education and those who speak English as a second language continue to have difficulty passing the tests. Several opportunities to take the test, remedial classes, afterschool tutoring, and other academic assistance have not been enough to help them achieve a passing score.

A bill that would have allowed special education students to receive diplomas even if they failed the test was vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Enacting this bill sends the wrong message to the over 650,000 special education students in our state, the majority of which have the ability to pass the CAHSEE,” he wrote in his veto message.

Teachers have been very vocal in their concerns about the test, with many saying that students arrive unprepared and unmotivated for high school courses. “It’s unfair to give this test because of the unequal school system we have,” Edgar Sanchez, a U.S. history teacher at Washington Preparatory High School in South Los Angeles, told the Los Angeles Times. “Every day I see students go through conditions of overcrowding. Sometimes students don’t have a desk to sit at.”

California’s superintendent of public instruction, Jack O’Connell, remains opposed to any change that would diminish the worth of California’s high school diploma. “It’s important to keep one core principle front and center: awarding a student a diploma without the skills and knowledge to back it up does the student a disservice,” he said.

“20 Percent of Seniors Flunk High School Graduation Exam” is available at,0,7413567.story.

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