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Efforts to Help Struggling Students Pass Exit Exam Are Too Little, Too Late

Early Intervention Is Most Cost-effective Strategy—New Model Can Help Identify Those At Risk

SAN FRANCISCO, June 26, 2012—State-funded support services for students who fail the California High School Exit Exam in grade 10 have helped only a small percentage of students go on to pass the test and obtain their diplomas, according to a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

The PPIC report assesses the impact of two state laws allocating funds to districts for tutoring and other services to help students pass the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE), which is administered several times before the end of grade 12. One law, AB 128, funds tutoring and other support for students primarily in grades 11 and 12. A second, AB 347, provides two additional years of support for students to re-enroll in school if they have failed to pass the exam by the end of grade 12. The PPIC report evaluates these laws using data from the San Diego Unified School District, the second largest in California. It also assesses the impact of exam prep classes created by the district for students in grades 11 and 12 who have not passed the exam. These classes teach students about the structure of the exam and test-taking strategies, as well as focus on the knowledge needed to pass the test’s two components, math and English language arts.

The report finds that tutoring provided under AB 128 has not helped students pass the exam. The other two interventions studied—supporting students who re-enroll to take the test and providing prep classes—helped students to a limited extent. Taken together, these interventions helped only 1.5 to 3 percent of students pass both sections of the exam.

“It is clear that we need better ways to help students in high school—or new efforts to help them prepare for the exam well before they first take it in grade 10,” says Julian Betts, co-author of the report, a Bren policy fellow at PPIC and professor at UC San Diego.

There have been modest improvements in exit exam results in the years since it became a requirement with the class of 2006. But in 2010 about 1 in 16 students statewide failed to pass the exam before the end of grade 12. Just less than 1 in 3 students in grade 10 students failed on their first try. The exam is a high-stakes test, not only for students but also for schools and districts. Exam results are used to calculate the Academic Performance Index—the measure used in California’s public school accountability program—and are the sole measure used to determine whether high schools have made “Adequate Yearly Progress” under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The report’s authors cite several reasons why early intervention is a more promising approach for helping struggling students. First, the skills needed to pass both the English and math sections are taught throughout elementary and middle school, and there is little reason to wait to help struggling students. Second, tutoring and extra classes are less expensive than re-enrolling students after four years of high school—for taxpayers and for the students themselves. Finally, steady support for students spread over many grades is more likely to have a lasting effect on students’ capabilities than 11th-hour interventions.

The report points out that early intervention is now possible under AB 128. This funding can now be used more flexibly than in the past, allowing districts to use the state money however they see fit and to provide tutoring for any type of assistance earlier than grades 11 and 12.

Early intervention requires that school districts be able to identify students at risk of failing the exam. Earlier work by Betts and co-author Andrew Zau demonstrated that data from as early as grade 4 could accurately identify students at risk of failing the high school exit exam. The current PPIC report shows that data from as early as grade 2 are highly predictive and can help districts identify elementary school students likely to have trouble with the exam many years in their future.

In conjunction with this report, the authors have developed a CAHSEE Early Warning Model that California school districts can use to identify at-risk students. It is available as a set of spreadsheets on the PPIC website. The Early Warning Model allows districts to forecast the probability that a student passes the exam in grade 10 based on student characteristics observed either in grade 6 or grade 8. This tool allows districts to identify students who require additional assistance in middle school or as they enter high school, before they take the exam for the first time.

The PPIC report is called Passing the California High School Exit Exam: Have Recent Policies Improved Student Performance? It is supported with funding from the Donald Bren Foundation. In addition to Betts and Zau, senior statistician for the San Diego Research Alliance at UCSD, the co-authors are Yendrick Zieleniak, a doctoral student in economics at UC San Diego, and Karen Volz Bachofer, director of UCSD’s San Diego Education Research Alliance.


PPIC is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. As a private operating foundation, PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.

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