A new report released this week by a Stanford University research team, based on a study of four school districts in the state, found that the graduation rates of the lowest achieving African American students dropped 19% since the requirement that all seniors in the state pass the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) was implemented in order to obtain a diploma.

In fact according to the study, called “Effects of the California High School Exit Exam on Student Persistence, Achievement and Graduation,” the advent of the exit exam has been detrimental to most low-achieving minorities and female students.

Sean Reardon, an associate professor of education at Stanford said that these students are in the bottom 25% of pupils, and that about 10% (or 20,000) of youngsters in the class of 2006 and 2007 would have received diplomas had the CAHSEE not been in place.

The study found that the exit exam requirement had no impact on the graduation rate of White students while minority youngsters were severely impacted, with the rates dropping 19% for Blacks; 15% for Hispanics: 17% for Asian and 19% among female students.

The researcher said this occurred even though the students received academic intervention services.

Reardon said that to figure out why the drop was occurring, he and his team looked at all the potential factors and ruled out all but one.

“We were able to rule out a number of explanations. First the differential did not result because students of color and girls have lower academic skills than Whites and boys, because we were comparing students of the same levels. It didn’t result because of the quality of schools and opportunity to learn, because the results were the same within individual schools. It isn’t because the exam is biased (in favor of White or male students). The gap also is not the result of different levels of effort by students,” said Reardon, who also said that the Hispanic and Asian student were also English proficient.

The one consistent explanation found was a factor called Stereotype Threat. The study describes this “as a phenomenon where the fear that if one performs poorly on a high-stakes tests, it will confirm a negative societal stereotype about one’s group.”

This leads to increased test anxiety among negatively portrayed groups, which in turn leads these youngsters to under perform on such tests relative to similarly skilled non-stereotyped students.

Reardon said girls (for example) are expected by society to do poorly in math, and they did in this instance.

The Stanford educator acknowledges that this seems to be a simplistic answer but points to a large body of research that such expectations can have an enormous impact on student performance in relation to their true skills.

“Many people find it surprising that it can have such a large impact. But it is well documented in socio-psych research that it does,” said Reardon.

The Stanford study examined test results of students in the Fresno, Long Beach, San Diego and San Francisco school districts,.

“The results didn’t differ by district. They were very consistent across districts. The results suggest that this represents a statewide pattern.

The implications of these additional drop-outs are troubling, added Russell Rumberger, head of the California Drop-Out Research Project at UC Santa Barbara.

“We just released a study two weeks ago (based on the 2006-07 school year). About 123,000 students dropped out of high school and middle school in California (during that school year), and the economic losses from that one group is estimated at $24 billion over their lifetime. That assumes that up to one half come back and graduate.”

Bottom line, said the researchers is that contrary to what it was intended to do, the exit exam is not raising achievement levels for the lowest performing students.

Consequently, the study suggests two courses of action: Look at the exam again to see how it can be changed perhaps by incorporating some of the techniques designed to minimize the stereotype threat effect or look at alternative methods of assessing student knowledge.