High School Exit Exams Fuel the School-to-Prison Pipeline

An alarming rate of students who fail state-mandated tests are ending up in jail.

School-to-Prison Pipeline, High School Exit Exams

While testing was never intended to leave students without hope, that has been the result. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Critics have long lamented high school exit exams.

A prerequisite for graduating, these tests have become more commonplace in recent years and are touted as tools to hold students—and teachers—accountable for academic knowledge.

Nearly half of all states have such tests, which focus primarily on math and language arts, although some states like Florida also cover science and history.

While Texas has eased the number of end-of-course exams required in high school, other states are considering making them more rigorous.

According to a 2012 Center on Education Policy report, exit exams will soon align with Common Core State Standards. The report noted: "Students who are already struggling with the current state standards will soon be expected to pass exit exams aligned to more rigorous standards, and there's a good chance many will fail to do so."

That same report stated that three states are "phasing in requirements for end-of-course exit exams, and six more states currently require or will soon require students to take, but not necessarily pass, end-of-course exams to graduate."

But a new landmark study may give education leaders some pause. The Effect of High School Exit Exams on Graduation, Employment, Wages and Incarceration by researchers Olesya Baker and Kevin Lang at the National Bureau of Economic Research links exit exams to high rates of incarceration.

The study found that out of the 70 percent of U.S. students who take exit exams, about one percent fail and consequently don't receive diplomas. But more startlingly, this same one percent has a much greater chance—12.5 percent—of incarceration.

This new statistic feeds into the national trend that students are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

"Exit exams represent a single set of tests that trumps years of work that students have completed," Anthony Cody, author of the Living in Dialogue blog and a retired Oakland teacher, told TakePart. "Research shows some students experience great anxiety when taking high-stakes tests, and are unable to show what they are capable of."

He added that other research shows that "female and minority students are particularly likely to suffer from anxiety."

The study comes as more educators and activists express concerns about the school-to-prison pipeline. For years, zero-tolerance policies for minor infractions have been cited as a key reason for this growing problem, according to the Juvenile Law Center.

The American Civil Liberties Union has long been involved in the issue, stating on its website:

Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished and pushed out.

Last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center announced an agreement with the Mobile County Public Schools in Alabama "to reduce out-of-school suspensions for minor misbehavior and provide alternative forms of discipline." The SPLC filed a federal lawsuit in 2011 on behalf of seven students who received extreme punishment.  

But now the focus will likely shift to exit exams, which, some say, could make students feel like academic losers, regardless of their previous 12 years in school, said Ted Wachtel, president of the International Institute for Restorative Practices in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

"This study is basically confirming the fact that when people don't finish high school they have a higher chance of ending up in trouble," he told TakePart. "It has to be devastating for a kid to get to the end of high school and suddenly find out they aren't going to get a degree. I understand the counter arguments, but there is something to be said for a student who demonstrates persistence by simply making it through school for 12 years and getting passing grades."

Exit exams are often cited as a positive means for employers to hire graduates. But the Baker and Lang study noted, "We find no consistent effects of exit exams on employment or the distribution of wages."

Cody feels strongly that schools should stop administering the exams.

"Given that exit exams have been shown to have no benefit for our economy or for the students that take them, and we now know of this very real harm they are causing, they should be discontinued immediately," he said.

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