The Consequences of High School Exit Examinations for Struggling Low-Income Urban Students: Evidence from Massachusetts
The growing prominence of high-stakes exit examinations has made questions about their effects on student outcomes increasingly important. We take advantage of a natural experiment to evaluate the causal effects of failing a high-stakes test on high school completion for the cohort scheduled to graduate from Massachusetts high schools in 2006. With these exit examinations, states divide a continuous performance measure into dichotomous categories, so students with essentially identical performance may have different outcomes. We find that, for low-income urban students on the margin of passing, failing the 10th grade mathematics examination reduces the probability of on-time graduation by eight percentage points. The large majority (89%) of students who fail the 10th grade mathematics examination retake it. However, although we find that low-income urban students are just as likely to retake the test as apparently equally skilled suburban students, they are much less likely to pass this retest. Furthermore, failing the 8th grade mathematics examination reduces by three percentage points the probability that low-income urban students stay in school through 10th grade. We find no effects for suburban students or wealthier urban students.
The authors thank Carrie Conaway, the Director of Planning, Research, and Evaluation of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, for providing the data and for answering many questions about data collection procedures. Participants in the May 1, 2008 NBER economics of education workshop provided helpful comments. Financial support was provided by the U.S. Department of Education Institute for Education Sciences (Grant Number R305A080127) and the Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean's Summer Fellowship. The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.