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April 28, 2004

Study: Mandatory standardized testing before graduation has little effect on graduation rates

"Exit exams," a kind of standardized test that students must pass to graduate from high school, do not reduce graduation rates, according to a new Manhattan Institute analysis of 24 states.

The Institute also said its research shows that neither reducing class sizes nor increasing education spending leads to higher graduation rates.

The results of the study were released this week in "Pushed Out or Pulled Up? Exit Exams and Dropout Rates in Public High Schools." The paper was written by Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow at the Institute, and Marcus A. Winters, a research associate at the Institute. The paper is available at www.manhattan-institute.org/html/ewp_05.htm.

The 24 four states studied all use or plan to use mandatory exit exams to ensure that students who receive high school diplomas meet basic thresholds of academic proficiency and job readiness, the report said.

"Opponents of these exams complain that they drive already-low graduation rates downward. They argue that raising the bar for graduation forces many students, minority students in particular, to drop out," the paper said.

But using two established graduation-rate calculations to evaluate the effect of the tests on graduate rates, the researchers showed that exit exams have no effect on a state's graduation rate.

The paper reviewed several earlier studies of standardized tests and graduation rates, and concluded that evidence showing that tougher graduation requirements will drive graduation rates down "is far from clear."

"While the belief that high school exit exams cause graduation rates to decline is widespread, there is little empirical evidence supporting it."

Some students who fail exams would have failed to graduate anyhow, and creating the tests may motivate schools to improve; and "if testing causes schools to improve, it might actually increase the number of students who graduate," the paper said.