Commentary

Predicting Success, Preventing Failure


By Julian Betts, adjunct fellow, Public Policy Institute of California and Andrew Zau, senior statistician, University of California, San Diego

This opinion article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on June 20, 2008

 

 

After the sounds of "Pomp and Circumstance" have faded, Californians will find out just how many high school seniors actually graduated this year. A significant number will be denied diplomas because they failed the California High School Exit Exam.

As the only part of the state's accountability system with direct consequences for students, the exit exam has been the focus of legal and political challenges from the beginning. This year's results are unlikely to quiet the controversy.

But there is common ground even in the highly charged debate between advocates, who see the test as a tool to ensure student achievement, and opponents, who feel it is unfair to English language learners and special education students. Both want answers to the same questions: Who is likely to fail? What can be done to help them succeed?

Our research for the Public Policy Institute of California answers the first question. Working with the San Diego Unified School District - whose student population mirrors the state's - we developed a highly accurate method for predicting performance on the exam, based on grades, test scores and teachers' ratings of student behavior over many years. We identified children as early as fourth grade who would later fail the exam.

California taxpayers pay for tutoring for students who reach 12th grade without passing the exam. A new law also provides two years of help after 12th grade to anyone denied a diploma for failing the exit exam. Our research suggests that these efforts may not be enough. In San Diego, almost none of the seniors who failed the exam in 2006 took it and passed the following year. Rigorous studies are needed to determine the effectiveness of these tutoring programs on a statewide basis.

Because we can identify elementary and middle school children likely to fail the exit exam in high school, policymakers should develop an early warning identification system and consider spending tutoring dollars before struggling students reach their senior year in high school. This could be done, in part, by giving public school districts more flexibility to spend money that can now only be used for students in 12th grade or for those who finish 12th grade but fail the exit exam, and thus are denied a diploma.

Policymakers should also consider focusing on the many students who barely pass the exam. Although the high overall pass rate is good news, it overstates the success of California students. They get six opportunities to pass the test, beginning in 10th grade. In 2006, about 41 percent of 10th graders in San Diego failed the math section, the English section, or both. This is a troubling result for an exam that covers middle-school math and 10th-grade English. Also worrisome: Many who later passed barely made the minimum score.

What programs work best to improve student achievement? We recommend that the state commission carefully designed studies in a limited number of schools to determine the approaches - after-school reading programs, specialized teacher development programs, or others - that most benefit students. The timing of such support, that is, the best grades during which to implement such programs, also deserves rigorous study.

As the state's leaders confront an immediate budget crisis, they may hesitate to spend money now to improve graduation rates in five or six years. But identifying and helping younger students likely to fail in high school may also have significant shorter-term benefits. A child who improves reading skills in elementary school is likely to do better in other subjects and to be a more engaged student.

California has a long history of implementing expensive educational reforms without a solid research basis, such as the class-size reduction program that began in 1996. Initiating small-scale tests that provide policymakers with information to make informed decisions is far less expensive. And adopting such forward-looking measures will put California on track to be a national leader in education reform.


Class of 2006 exit exam passing rates (San Diego and statewide)

About 1 student in 10 statewide failed the test in 2006, the first year the exam was required - and this number improved only slightly last year.
 
 
Passing Rate
 
San Diego
State
By grade 12
 
 
Overall passing rate by spring '06
90%
91%
By grade 10
 
 
Students who passed English section
76
75
Students who passed math section
74
74
English language learners
 
 
Students who passed English section
28
39
Students who passed math section
41
49

Sources: San Diego, authors' calculations; statewide data available at http://dq.cde.ca.gov/dataquest/.

Related Publications

Predicting Success, Preventing Failure: An Investigation of the California High School Exit Exam

Statewide Survey: Californians and Education, April 2008

Can California Import Enough College Graduates to Meet Workforce Needs?