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Correlations Between High Stakes Tests And High School Dropout Rates

This chapter provides background knowledge related to past research undertaken to identify possible correlations between high-stakes tests and high school dropout rates. The review begins with a brief definition of high-stakes tests and the impact of these requirements in the current era of accountability legislation. After a brief overview of high-stakes testing, the focus will turn to exit exams, specifically the California High School Exit Exam, and the use of these tests as a criterion to graduate from high school. Building on the increased exposure recently afforded to the nationwide topic of high school dropout rates, this review subsequently identifies the demographic and academic factors that currently designate students as at-risk for high-school dropout. Finally, self-determination theory will be examined relative to high-stakes testing and high school dropout.

For ease of understanding and readability, the term dropout will be used consistently throughout this literature review even when the original authors of the literature being reviewed referred to students who leave school before receiving a diploma by alternate terminology.

High-Stakes Testing

One of the fundamental pieces of legislation that led to the current accountability movement was President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965. The emphasis on accountability was further strengthened by President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001. In fact, NCLB’s empirical data driven focus requires sanctions to school districts for failure to meet test score requirements (Hollingsworth, 2007) mandated by this legislation. The first step in understanding the potential correlation between high-stakes testing and dropout is defining high-stakes tests. Cortiella (2010) stated that tests which determine a standard for a high school diploma are defined as high-stakes tests because they are attached to consequences for students. Students are held individually accountable for their performance on these types of assessments.

In response to public demand for more highly-skilled high school graduates and the requirement of NCLB legislation, states have developed a variety of policies such as high-stakes exit exams (Johnson, Thurlow, Stout & Mavis, 2007). With this in mind, Amrein and Berliner (2002) studied “high stakes” accountability as it relates to these statewide exams. They found that student learning was primarily limited to the content of statewide exams in states that attached high-stakes to their testing. Further research showed that some groups of students, such as students receiving special education services, are impacted more than other students by these exams.

High-Stakes Testing (HST) and Special Education

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and ESEA Title I require inclusion of all students with disabilities in a State assessment system (US DOE, 2003). In addition, the IDEA Amendments of 1997 stipulate that students with disabilities must be included in state and district assessments. This further challenges the 26 states that have implemented these tests to develop policy options to allow participation of these students (Johnson, et al, 2007). However, not all research views these policies as completely negative for students receiving special education services. Thurlow and Johnson (2000) reported the benefit of special education student participation in high-stakes testing as the assurance of access to general education curriculum. Therefore, students with disabilities are a more-integrated part of the classroom and are no longer left behind. However, the authors state that students with disabilities may also be negatively impacted by high-stakes exams when compared to their non-disabled peers. This sentiment is echoed by researchers who studied the impact of these tests on low-income students and students of color.

HST, Socioeconomic Status, and Students of Color

Hong and Youngs (2008) stated that increased opportunity for students of color and low-income students to obtain academic qualifications must be a quantifiable measure of successful accountability for any high-stakes testing policy. Without this measure of accountability, Clarke, Haney, and Madaus (2000) found that schools with predominantly low-income student populations that administered high-stakes tests in eighth grade reported high dropout rates as early as the tenth grade. Clarke and Madaus further reported in 2001 that these high-stakes tests were not an equitable way to assess student progress when considering race, culture, native language, or gender. Therefore, it was no surprise to the authors that their findings showed that students of color had increased high school dropout rates.

By contrast, in 2002 Carnoy and Loeb reported that high school dropout rates in states utilizing high-stakes testing were not significantly higher than those states that did not administer these tests. However, in 2005, Carnoy added to this body of knowledge by revealing that dropout rates for low-income students were actually impacted by an education system which prepared them poorly for their entire high school career. He concluded that the necessary effort and frustration experienced by these students were simply too great to overcome. However, poverty and color are not the only demographic areas where challenges are identified in HST.

HST and English Learners

In 1998, Pedroza reported the lack of sensitivity afforded “intermediate” speakers of English with respect to high-stakes testing policies. He cited the complexity of language experience and the inappropriateness of policies that assume all schools and students are alike. Seven years later, Adam (2005) stated that unlike other subgroups, English learners were still not provided with enough additional support or exam exemptions and experienced increases in high-stakes test failure rates. Given the lack of support structures in place to scaffold test preparation for English Learners, it is no wonder that motivation and college preparation are impacted.

HST and Motivation and Higher Education

In 2003, Amrein and Berliner reported an increase in students who leave school before graduation coupled with decreased student motivation due to high-stakes testing. This new requirement prompted other studies with respect to academic motivation. Montecel (2004) echoed the finding of Amrein and Berliner in a study where he determined that the high-stakes testing environment was not producing higher numbers of graduates or college enrollees. In a third study, contrary to high-stakes testing proponent claims, these tests do not motivate students (Clarke and Madaus, 2001). Although, the authors do recognize that motivation is a barrier to increased workforce and college preparatory skills.

High-stakes tests are undoubtedly working against closing the achievement gap between the haves and have-nots (Wagner, 2003). Exit exams are an example of this statement. According to Amrein and Berliner (2003) enough negative, unintended consequences are attached to high-stakes testing that graduation exams of this nature are questionable. Among the questions is the impact of these tests on student graduation rates. Higher dropout and lower high school completion rates are inevitable, and Reid (2002) cautions of the danger in determining a student’s academic performance solely on the basis of these test scores. Noddings (2002) stated it best when he wrote “to have high expectations for each child does not mean that we must hold the same expectations for all children” (p.75). This statement rings true for high-stakes testing, and resonates even louder when considering high school exit exams.

Exit Exams

During the 1970s, colleges and employers began to increase complaints to policymakers about the lack of adequate preparedness of America’s high school graduates. Their claim was that these students lacked the basic skills necessary to ensure their future academic or employment success (Linn, 1998). In response to this need, some states began establishing minimum graduation requirements and increasing the emphasis on basic skills in the classroom. However, most states continued to allow local school districts to control the requirements for receiving a high school diploma, including the administration of exit exams (Linn).

In 1986, McDill, Natriello, and Pallas reported an early correlation between high rates of exit exam failure and dropout rates. They attributed this trend to the requirements surrounding higher levels of student achievement. The Center on Education Policy reported that American education has been significantly impacted by high school exit examinations (2008). Twenty-six states currently require passage of a high school exit exam to fulfill graduation requirements and receive a diploma. Three more states will implement this requirement by 2012. The Human Resources Research Organization (HumRRO) reported that when that happens, 74 percent of America’s high school students will be subjected to this requirement (2008). Just as with high-stakes testing in general, high school exit exams are impacting some student groups more than others.

Exit Exams and Special Education

In line with Sinclair’s (1994) “unanticipated consequences,” Nelson (2006) studied the intended and unintended consequences of high stakes graduation exams on students with disabilities. She concluded that the tests have had some very positive, but also some negative consequences for students with disabilities. Positive attributes included increased exposure to the curriculum, increased participation in testing, and raised expectations. The negative consequences stated by Nelson included high levels of anxiety and frustration, and drop-out concerns. Sinclair’s (1994) research mirrors these concerns stating that the dropout problem is particularly great among youth with learning or emotional/behavioral disabilities. Gartland and Strosnider (2004) stated that in order to reduce dropout rates and increase high school completion rates, accommodations and modifications must be adhered to when administering high-stakes tests to students with disabilities. However, students receiving special education services are not the only students with identifiable challenges with respect to high school exit exams.

Exit Exams and Student Demographics

The Center on Education Policy (2008) stated that students of color have been impacted by exit exams most heavily. Barnes (2009) reported that 81 percent of students of color in 29 states will be subjected to high-stakes graduation requirements by 2012. The students of color with the greatest negative impact according to this statistic were Black males. However, the Center on Education Policy’s research did not significantly reveal that dropout rates were increased or decreased by high school exit exams.

Clarke, Haney and Madaus (2000) also argued that decreased high school completion rates are a direct result of high-stakes graduation tests. However, they too found no clear evidence to support an effect according to race. Additionally, Barnes (2009) identified an increase in the number of students of color who are failing exit exams and dropping out of high school. He further stated that although these exams are fulfilling the accountability requirements of the schools, it is at the expense of those students who are struggling to pass the exams.

White students are not impacted to the degree that students of color are impacted by high-stakes high school exit exams (Amrein and Berliner, 2002). The 26 states that require exit exams have high percentages of low socioeconomic, Hispanic and Black students (Amrein and Berliner, 2002; Warren and Edwards, 2003).

However, Lillard and Warren (2003) reported that there are no particular groups of students that are increasingly dropping out of high school due to exit exams. Jacob (2001) stated that there is no effect on an average student’s decision to drop out of high school due to the exit exam requirement. However, in contrast to Lillard and Warren, Jacob also determined that low-achieving students who were required to take exit exams had a 25% higher rate of dropping out of high school than comparable students in states that do not have this requirement. Given the staggering statistics surrounding exit exams and their impact on dropout rates, alternatives for some students have been introduced.

Alternatives to Exit Exams

The Center for Education Policy (2008) reported that all states requiring exit exams allow special education students an alternative route to receiving a diploma. Eighteen states have the same allowance for general education students and three states allow English learners to seek an alternative route to a diploma. However, they claim that these concessions impact a very small percentage of students.

Walden and Kritsonis (2008) urge us to consider the anxiety about failing exit exams that drive some students to drop out and others to feel that there is no alternative if the exam actually is failed. In fact, states requiring high school exit exams have lower high school completion rates which, in turn, produce higher numbers of individuals who attempt the General Education Development (GED) test (Glenn, 2006). Although the GED test is an option for some students, the goal of student achievement, workforce preparedness, and college preparation during the high school years seems to have been lost in the exit exam shuffle.

Exit Exams and Student Achievement

Jacob (2001) reported that student achievement levels were significantly lower in states that required high-stakes graduation requirements than in states that did not impose this requirement. He stated that this fact is in direct conflict with proponents of exit exams who argued that these exams would increase student achievement. Amrein and Berliner (2002) added that the states who reported dropout rate increase were those who had implemented passage of a state exit exam to graduate from high school, in addition to increasing student achievement.

Jerald (2001) found evidence to the contrary in Texas where they claim increases in student achievement. This study determined that dropout rates did not increase due to the implementation of high-stakes tests as a requirement to graduation from high school. In fact, he reported that high school completion rates have been increasing since 1991. However, not every state is seeing this improvement. California is one of those states.

California High School Exit Exam

High stakes testing has been a major factor in California public education reform, which is designed to improve school accountability and raise achievement levels to close the achievement gap (Linn, 2000). However, there is concern that increased emphasis on high stakes testing, such as high school exit exams, may have adverse effects on students such as increased dropout rates (Cuenca, 1991).

The California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) was established in 1999 (California Education Code sections 60850 and 60851) and required all high school students beginning with the class of 2004 to pass the CAHSEE to earn a high school diploma (Garcia and Calhoun, 2002). In July 2003, the State Board of Education made the decision to delay the passage of the exit exam as a graduation requirement until the class of 2006. Although viewed as a reprieve, this decision simply delayed the inevitable challenge that the implementation of NCLB initiated. California would soon find out which students suffered the greatest impact of this new requirement.

CAHSEE and Student Demographics

In 2008, the Human Resources Research Organization (HumRRO) reported the initial pass rates for the Class of 2010 after the tenth grade CAHSEE administration. The results revealed that pass rates were low for many subgroups. Black and Hispanic student pass rates were 52 and 58 percent respectively. Low-income students recorded a 57 percent pass rate, and the two lowest pass rates were recorded by English learners at 29 percent and all students with disabilities required to take the CAHSEE at 20 percent (p. 7).

Billinger (2004) studied the effect of demographic characteristics on CAHSEE test scores. Her findings regarding gender roles were consistent with prior research. In English, girls scored better than boys; and in math, boys scored better than girls. With respect to ethnicity, White and Asian students performed better than Black and Hispanic students. Students who spoke English as a first language scored higher than English learners. She further reported that students who participate in college preparatory courses scored higher on the CAHSEE than those students who did not take those courses. Additionally, she tested the effects of athletic program participation and found that it was not a significant indicator of CAHSEE performance. Although this study identified the correlates of test achievement, academic achievement and high school completion should be the ultimate goal of an education system.

CAHSEE, Student Achievement and Dropout

Reardon, Atteberry, Arshan and Kurlaender (2009) examined the impact of exit exams on student achievement, student persistence and dropout rates. In this particular study, the authors were looking at persistence as measured by students who stay in school until 11th grade, students who stay in school until 12th grade, and students who graduate from high school. They found that student achievement did not increase and persistence was actually slightly decreased. The greatest consequence outlined by their research was the negative impact of exit exams on student dropout rates. Reardon et al. estimated that school completion rates in California decreased from 8.1 to 4.5 percent due to the exit exam requirement. They further concluded that the main groups of students impacted by this statistic were female students, students of color, and low-achieving students. Reardon et al. found that these groups fail the CAHSEE at significantly higher rates than their White and male counterparts. Given this information, the review turns to literature pertaining to dropout rates as a consequence of high-stakes testing.

High School Dropouts

In an effort to evaluate the effect of standards-based accountability on educationally disadvantaged subgroups, in 1999 the Committee on Educational Excellence and Testing Equity was created. The main function of this committee was to monitor students that were at higher risk of dropping out of high school than others. Their focus was on potential risk factors such as poverty, limited English speaking ability, disability status, and students of color. Their basis was that these groups have been at higher risk of dropout for decades (National Research Council, 2001). Given this background, the committee began to look at the impact high school exit exams were having on an already alarming dropout problem.

“No Child Left Behind federal education requirements around graduation rates are casting a national spotlight on the issue of dropouts,” (Montecel, 2004, p. 1). California is not an isolated state facing this dilemma. Orfield, Losen, Wald, and Swanson (2004) reported that only 68 percent of high school students, nationwide, will graduate on time with a regular diploma. Additionally, increased emphasis on high-stakes testing has prompted more urban, poor students of color to leave high school without receiving a diploma (Smyth, 2006). Gleason and Dynarski (2002) reported that students who are typically identified as at-risk for dropping out of high school are not necessarily the students who are best served by dropout prevention programs. In a study aimed at finding a solution, they incorporated individual as well as composite risk factors for dropping out of high school. They reported that composite risk factors more accurately portrayed a dropout scenario than single risk factors did. Their study found that high absenteeism and students who were more than two years overage for their grade level were significantly predictive of high school dropout. Therefore, prevention programs intended to benefit students who were identified as potential high school dropouts using factors that did not include these two variables were serving students who might or might not have dropped out. That being said, it is imperative that education leaders are aware of all school factors which contribute to high school dropout to ensure the needs of the students are being met.

School Factors Impacting Dropout Rates

In 1993, Crone, Glascock, Franklin and Kochan found a strong predictive relationship between student attendance and graduation exit exam passage rates. This relationship was also indicative of suspension, expulsion and dropout rates. Their study examined urban secondary schools with a high population of students designated as having low socioeconomic status. Additionally, they found that Black students had better attendance rates than White students. However, this is not consistent with many studies of this nature with respect to students of color and poor students. Griffin and Heidorn (1996) found the same results regarding the adverse effects of exit exams on at-risk, disadvantaged students. However, examining the effect of exit exams on dropout rates, they found that the relationship was not significant for students of color or students with a poor academic record. The only significant increase in dropout rate was for students who were academically successful.

Potter and Wall (1992) found that higher standards, which paved the way for high-stakes testing, provided minimal increases in academic achievement while producing negative effects on some students, especially male students of color. Haney (2000) reported that during the first year of high-stakes graduation testing in Texas, graduation rates declined, with a 50 percent greater decline for Black and Hispanic students than other ethnic groups. Many researchers blame high-stakes testing, at least in part, for the increasing U.S. dropout rates (Rothstein, 2002). These results, which highlight the negative consequences of high-stakes testing on dropout rates, are consistent with Shepard (2000), Darling-Hammond (2004), and Hong and Youngs (2008). Additionally, low-achieving students in states requiring high-stakes tests were more likely to drop out than those students in states without high-stakes testing (Jacob, 2001). To emphasize this, Clarke, Haney, and Madaus (2000) reported that of the ten states with the highest dropout rates, 9 of them correlate test scores with graduation requirements.

Grade retention is another school factor affecting a students’ decision to drop out of high school. Potter and Wall (1992) reported that although high-stakes testing may have slightly increased student achievement, dropout rates did not decrease when student grade retention increased. Allensworth (2004) did a study of students from 1992 to 1998 and found 8 percent and 13 percent dropout rate increases for 17 and 19 year-olds respectively, when retained in a grade during their school career. In 2005, Allensworth performed another study using data from Chicago Public Schools after they had implemented a promotion standard for eighth grade. Although the study yielded negative effects of the policy on dropout rates, they were smaller than those found through traditional retention practices. Academic rigor is a key element in student achievement and completion. However, some demographic groups are succeeding while others are not.

Student Demographics and Dropout Rates

Walden and Kritsonis (2008) stated that almost all demographic and socioeconomic groups have documented academic student achievement gaps. Yearly, more American poor students and students of color disproportionately disappear from the public school system than other groups of students (Orfield, Et al., 2004).

When examining student demographic characteristics, Black and Hispanic students are more likely than White students to drop out of high school (Gleason & Dynarski, 2002) expanding the gap between students of color and White students (Miao & Haney, 2004). Mishel and Roy (2006) reported that the dropout crisis is not nearly as bad as reported. They found that although there is a disparity between the dropout rates of White students and students of color, it is due to the “flawed analyses of inadequate data,” (p. 1). Looking at geographic location, Pallas (1987) found that students in urban schools have higher dropout rates than students in suburban and rural school settings. Student who attend urban schools typically live in poorer neighborhoods. Vartanian and Gleason (1999) reported that students living in poor neighborhoods are more likely to drop out of high school than those students who live in wealthier neighborhoods. This finding is consistent even if the family income of students living in wealthier neighborhoods is low.

Researchers from the National Board for Educational Testing and Public Policy did a study with high school students in Florida and found that moderate grades coupled with a failure to pass the state’s exit exam significantly increased dropout rates. Amrein and Berliner (2003) echoed the likelihood of high school dropout after high-stakes test failure even among students with good academic records. A Griffin and Heidorn (1996) study found that students were more likely to drop out of high school after failing an exit exam if they had a high grade point average.

Although there are studies to the contrary, Snyder, in her 2004 dissertation, did not find ethnicity or disability status to be significant predictors of high school dropout. Allensworth (2004) similarly found no significant changes in Black students’ dropout rates from 1992 to 1998. However, the Snyder (2004) study did find gender, attendance, grades, retention, marital status of the family, and passage rates on end of course tests as significant predictors of high school dropout. Given what we know about who drops out of high school, this review continues by examining the impact of dropout rates on society.

Societal Consequences of Dropout Rates

Kaplan, Peck and Kaplan (1997) found in their study that students’ acceptance and self-esteem were significantly influenced by negative academic experiences. In addition to school experiences, the National Research Council (2001) reported on the negative consequences of dropping out of high school and deemed it a major life event resulting in low employment prospects.

According to Harlow (2003) 59 percent of America’s federal prison inmates and 75% of state inmates are high school dropouts. These dropouts are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested than their peers who graduate from high school. In 2003, the Alliance for Excellent Education reported that $1.4 billion in prison costs could be saved with a scant 1% increase in high school graduation rates. In 2006, they reported that $4.9 billion could be saved by a 5% increase in the number of male students who graduate from high school.

In 2007, the USA Today reported that student dropouts will reach 12 million over the next ten years resulting in a potential $3 trillion economic impact. Chaddock (2006) stated it best, when he reported “30 percent of our ninth graders fail to finish high school with a diploma, we are dealing with a crisis that has frightening implications for our future” (p. 3).

In 2003, Chudowsky and Gayler reported on the limited research that had been done to identify how dropout rates are being impacted by exit exams. They recommended further research in the form of longitudinal studies with respect to dropout rates and exit exams to add good information to the body of knowledge being used to establish policies. The authors criticized the continued policy-making in this area without concrete evidence outlining student consequences and the impact these policies are having on society as a whole. However, before this can be examined, we must look at how dropout rates are calculated.

Dropout Rate Calculations

In 2001, the National Research Council acknowledged the difficulty in accounting for accurate dropout rates due to several factors including data sources and counting methods. In 2007, California changed the format by which school districts are required to report dropout statistics. This was done in an effort to form statewide consistency and accuracy with respect to the numbers, and accountability with respect to the students the districts serve. In 2008, the HumRRO report brought to the forefront significant concern regarding high school dropout rates in California. For the first time, these rates could not be compared to prior years due to the change in dropout accounting procedures implemented in 2007. Hong and Youngs (2008) concurred with these statements, adding that the ability to obtain reliable data is difficult due to the variability in the measurement of dropout rates and the plethora of interpretations surrounding them. The Center on Education Policy (2005) reported that disagreement over dropout rate calculations is one of the main factors impeding consensus among researchers regarding the effect exit exam requirements are having on dropout rates. The reliability and consistency of these calculations is paramount to understanding the depth of the dropout problem.

After No Child Left Behind was signed into law in January 2002, the NEA Today (2003) reported the results of a statewide audit refuting the claim by President Bush that the public school system in Texas was the model of accountability. The audit results uncovered students who should have been reported as dropouts were actually recorded in other categories. Walden and Kritsonis (2008) stated that this procedure reported a 1.5 percent dropout rate which in actuality was closer to 40 percent. However, in 2004, Montecel acknowledged that “unacceptably high dropout rates” were a concern long before the current accountability systems were implemented. In California specifically, the dropout statistics are alarming for some students of color. The newly implemented dropout accounting procedures reported by HumRRO identified a 24 percent total statewide four-year dropout rate with the Hispanic subgroup recording 30 percent and the Black subgroup recording 42 percent (2008). As noted by the National Research Council (2001) these are groups that were already exhibiting dropout rates that were higher than the average.

In line with Montecel, Potter and Wall (1992) reported that the necessity for good data is imperative for researchers to fully comprehend high school completion rates. Without good data, the impact of student dropout rates cannot be understood. In turn, policies cannot be influenced and intervention cannot be developed and implemented.

Consequences of High School Dropout to Students

In 2009, Reardon, Atteberry, Arshan, and Kurlaender made an important distinction when they stated that the effects of failing exit exams fall solely on the students, not the districts or the schools in the current state of educational accountability. Although the CAHSEE passage rates are used in the state accountability calculations and policies requiring additional tutoring where passage rates are low, there are currently no sanctions applied to the schools or districts with low CAHSEE passage rates. The students are the lone recipient of the positive or negative consequences of the outcome of the CAHSEE. In the realm of self-determination theory (SDT), the imposition of an exit exam as a graduation requirement fosters a controlling motivational strategy which leads to superficial learning that is limited to the content of the test (Ryan and LaGuardia, 1999; Amrein and Berliner, 2002; Ryan and Niemiec, 2009).

The consequences surrounding students who drop out of high school are staggering. Nearly 33 percent of all public high school students and nearly 50 percent of Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans fail to graduate from high school (Bridgeland, Dilulio, and Morison, 2006). The authors explained that these consequences lead to unemployment, poverty, welfare, incarceration, health issues, marital problems, increases in single parenthood and children who eventually drop out of school. They further define this situation as dangerous for public high school students. Given the dire future outlook for high school dropouts, understanding why students do not complete the requirements to obtain a high school diploma is significant. Motivation may be a factor.

Self-Determination Theory

“Self-determination theory has long argued that using controlling external contingencies to change behaviors or enhance outcomes is typically ineffective over the long term, and yields many hidden costs,” (Ryan and Weinstein, 2009, p. 225). Holding students accountable to pass a high-stakes exit exam as a requirement to graduate from high school is an example of this. The effects of academic events such as exit exams on student motivation are determined by the functional significance of the event (Ryan and Deci, 2000). The functional significance is defined as informational, controlling, or amotivating. Exit exams would be informational if the feedback from student performance was utilized to enhance the effectiveness of the student’s academic program. However, this does not appear to be the use of these exit exams. According to SDT, the pressure of passing an exit exam has a controlling functional significance whereby behavior is attempted to be controlled (Deci, Koestner, and Ryan, 1999). Ryan and Brown (2005) added that this is especially true when rewards and sanctions are connected to these exams. Amotivating, or discouraging, experiences occur when tests involve negative feedback or are too challenging. This causes students to feel incompetent, and thus less motivated (Ryan and Weinstein).

Several studies have been conducted to research the difference between controlling and informational testing conditions (Ryan and Brown, 2005; Ryan and LaGuardia, 1999; Grolnick and Ryan, 1987). All three of these studies showed more depth of processing and higher levels of learning in the informational condition rather than the controlling condition. Ryan and Brown (2005) argued that the controlling condition of testing can lead to dangerous and undesirable behaviors such as teaching to the test. This certainly defeats the purpose of having an exit exam that is intended to ensure competence to graduate from high school. Ryan and Niemiec (2009) researched the impact of social contexts on the controlling condition of high-stakes testing by looking at student motivation. They found that SDT posits promoting behaviors that will enhance intrinsic motivation in students subjected to the requirement of exit exams. They added that SDT has a positive component that is lacking in other theories whereby behaviors can be nurtured to enhance a desired outcome. Therefore, identifying the characteristics of students who drop out of high school, while incorporating the impact of high school exit exams, will assist in analyzing the factors which contribute to the lack of student motivation to graduate from high school with a diploma.


Students of color, students with disabilities, English learners, and students designated as having low socioeconomic status have lower levels of achievement on high-stakes tests than their peers. As the title implies, high-stakes tests have consequences attached to them. In the case of exit exams required to graduate from high school with a regular diploma, the consequences can be dire to students who do not attain passing score. Although there are proponents of both sides of the argument as to whether or not exit exams impact the high school dropout rate, there is consensus that this impact cannot be measured using a single risk factor. Bridgeland, Et al. (2006) and Powell (2009) informed us that high school dropouts do not comprise a homogeneous group.

Dropout rates are a nationwide concern. However, the factors that the research identifies as at-risk for high-stakes testing are not universally consistent with the factors leading to high school student dropout. Clarke, Haney, and Madaus (2000) reported that nine of the ten states with the highest dropout rates tie test scores to graduation requirements. Additionally, Haney (2000) found consistency between first-year high-stakes graduation testing and greater dropout rates for students of color. In contrast, Griffin and Heidorn (1996) did not identify a significant effect on dropout rates for students of color or students with poor academic records. They did, however, find a significant effect on dropout rates for students who were otherwise academically successful, a point which was echoed by Amrein and Berliner in 2003.

Even without exit exam requirements, the research identified disparities in dropout rates among White students and student of color (Gleason & Dynarski, 2002) which led to an increase in the achievement gap between these two groups (Miao & Haney, 2004). Alternatively, Allensworth (2004) and Snyder (2004) did not find ethnicity to be a significant predictor of high school dropout. Furthermore, the Snyder study did not identify disability status as a predictor of high school dropout. However, gender, attendance, grades, retention, marital status of the family, and passage rates on end of course tests were identified as significant predictors of dropout.

The NCLB legislation mandates that California public school districts incorporate CAHSEE scores into their accountability equation. Therefore, even though students with disabilities do not currently have to pass the CAHSEE to receive a regular diploma when they graduate from high school, all students are required to take the exam in tenth grade without accommodations or modifications. Similar to high-stakes testing in general, the studies focusing on exit exams found that the same student subgroups, including student with disabilities, share lower rates of success. When examining the dropout rate with respect to the CAHSEE specifically, the Reardon et al. (2009) study reported the lack of decreased dropout rates and school persistence since the inception of the CAHSEE.

Holding students accountable for passing an exit exam to graduate from high school is an example of the long-term ineffectiveness leading to potential hidden costs explained by self-determination theory (Ryan and Weinstein, 2009). Deci and Ryan (2000) reported the effects of student motivation in the context of high-stakes testing as determined by their functional significance. This can be informational, whereby student performance feedback is used to enhance the student’s academic program; controlling, whereby rewards and sanctions are attached to the outcomes of the high-stakes testing (Ryan and Brown, 2005); or amotivating, whereby tests are too difficult or involve negative feedback which leaves the student feeling incompetent and discouraged (Ryan and Weinstein). Deci, Koestner, and Ryan, 1999, reported the pressure of passing an exit exam as having controlling functional significant according to SDT, especially when rewards and sanctions are connected to them (Ryan and Brown, 2005). Although higher levels of learning occur in the informational condition, Ryan and Niemiec (2009) found that SDT can promote behaviors within the controlling condition that will enhance intrinsic motivation in students subjected to the requirement of exit exams. This intrinsic motivation could be a potential determinant in reducing the dropout rate and lessening future consequences.

High school dropout is a major life event that results in low employment prospects (National Research Council, 2001), higher likelihood of being arrested (Harlow, 2003), a potential $3 trillion economic impact (USA Today, 2007), as well as poverty, welfare, health issues, marital problems, and single parenthood (Bridgeland, Dilulio, and Morison, 2006). These consequences paint a dire and potentially dangerous picture of life as a high school dropout. Although exit exams passage rate impact on dropout rates is the focus of this study, dropout rates concerns have a long history before high-stakes testing graduation requirements. “Unacceptably high dropout rates” were a concern long before the current accountability systems were implemented (Montecel, 2004). Mishel and Roy (2006) reported that this crisis was due to the “flawed analyses of inadequate data,” (p. 1). Gayler (2005) agreed that dropout calculations were one of the main factors impeding research consensus regarding the effect exit exams are having on dropout rates. In an effort to help alleviate the data inconsistencies, California changed the format by which school districts are required to report dropout statistics in 2007. Hong and Youngs (2008) added that the ability to obtain reliable data is difficult due to the variability in the measurement of dropout rates and the plethora of interpretations surrounding them.

As previously stated, Chudowsky and Gayler (2003) recommended further research in the form of longitudinal studies with respect to dropout rates and exit exams to add good information to the body of knowledge being used to establish policies. Additionally, identification of this information can lead to specific and targeted interventions aimed at bridging the achievement gap and decreasing the overall dropout rate, as well as the rates of all student subgroups. Therefore, a study which aims to identify multiple characteristics at the student level will give a broader picture of the potential to drop out of high school or persist through graduation. This includes the passage of a high school exit exam. Dropout rates in the U.S. are a serious concern (Smyth, 2006) and imminent action must be taken to understand the predictors leading to these student choices in order to influence policy, intervention, and prevention programs that will positively impact the future of California’s public school students.

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