High School Exit Exam Hinders Female and Non-White Students, Study Says

Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times, April 22, 2009

California’s high school exit exam is keeping disproportionate numbers of girls and non-whites from graduating, even when they are just as capable as white boys, according to a study released Tuesday. It also found that the exam, which became a graduation requirement in 2007, has “had no positive effect on student achievement.”

The study by researchers at Stanford University and UC Davis concluded that girls and non-whites were probably failing the exit exam more often than expected because of what is known as “stereotype threat,” a theory in social psychology that holds, essentially, that negative stereotypes can be self-fulfilling. In this case, researcher Sean Reardon said, girls and students of color may be tripped up by the expectation that they cannot do as well as white boys.

Reardon said there was no other apparent reason why girls and non-whites fail the exam more often than white boys, who are their equals in other, lower-stress academic assessments. Reardon, an associate professor of education at Stanford, urged the state Department of Education to consider either scrapping the exit exam — one of the reforms for which state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell has fought the hardest — or looking at ways of intervening to help students perform optimally. Reardon said the exam is keeping as many as 22,500 students a year from graduating who would otherwise fulfill all their requirements.

FOR THE RECORD: [The] in Wednesday’s Section A about California’s high school exit exam misstated the findings of a university study about the test. The story said researchers found that girls and non-whites fail the exam more than white boys, who are their equals in other assessments. The study actually found that girls and non-whites fail the exam more than those white boys who are their equals in other assessments. It did not compare them to all white boys.


Reardon said he initially was skeptical of the “stereotype threat” effect, but that it has been well-established by social psychologists and appears to apply to the test disparities.


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