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The Effect of High School Exit Exams on Graduation, Employment, Wages and Incarceration

Susan Notes: According to a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, rather than benefiting students who might otherwise graduate comparatively underprepared, standards-based tests account for a 12.5% rise in incarceration rates.


by Olesya Baker and Kevin Lang

NBER Working Paper No. 19182

Abstract:
We evaluate the effects of high school exit exams on high school graduation, incarceration, employment and wages. We construct a state/graduation-cohort dataset using the Current Population Survey, Census and information on exit exams. We find relatively modest effects of high school exit exams except on incarceration. Exams assessing academic skills below the high school level have little effect. However, more challenging standards-based exams reduce graduation and increase incarceration rates. About half the reduction in graduation rates is offset by increased GED receipt. We find no consistent effects of exit exams on employment or the distribution of wages.

You can read the paper for a $5 fee.

Here's the Business Insider summary:


Students Who Take Tougher Graduation Exams Are More Likely To Wind Up In Jail

by Peter Jacobs
July 2, 2013



While you might think a more rigorous education would lead to students who are better prepared for college or employment, high-stakes graduation testing actually leads to a higher incarceration rate, a new study finds.

About 70% of high school students in the U.S. take standardized exit exams, which determine whether they can graduate. The most rigorous of these exams are "standards-based tests" that at least address English and math skills learned from 9th grade on, and in some states focus on specific courses offered at public school.

If a student does not pass all portions of this test after multiple attempts, he or she will not receive a diploma.

Test advocates argue that these exams incentivize students by attaching concrete consequences to a standard of knowledge.

However, a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research claims that rather than benefiting students who might otherwise graduate comparatively underprepared, these standards-based tests account for a 12.5% rise in incarceration rates.

The paper remains neutral on the effectiveness of the exams, but closes by stating "nothing in this paper suggests that exit exams have large positive effects on student learning and productivity growth while they do suggest an important adverse effect for one segment of the population."

As the average state's incarceration rate was 1.6% during the period analyzed, the authors call this potential .2% increase "substantial" and "disturbing."

While "minimum competency" exams that track skills taught before high school have a smaller effect on incarceration rates, they were large enough to also be noted in the report.

The report also found a decline in graduation rates for states that have introduced standards-based testing. According to the authors, the 1% decline is consistent throughout most studies of exit exams.

While the accepted theories of standards-based testing argue that any graduation decline will be fully offset by students getting GEDs, the authors of the study found that any increase in GEDs was too insignificant to make up for graduation decreases.

Read more:

— Olesya Baker and Kevin Lang
NBER Working Paper No. 19182
2013-06-01
http://www.nber.org/papers/w19182


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