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Failure on California High School Exit Exam Can Be Predicted as Early as the Fourth Grade

As we celebrate graduations from high schools all across California, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) has released a sobering study, “Predicting Success, Preventing Failure: An Investigation of the California High School Exit Exam,” that shows that by the 4th grade those students who will pass or fail the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) can fairly accurately be identified.

We pour significant resources into trying to help students pass the exam---much of it in the 12th grade—but these late efforts do not make as much difference in the pass/fail rate as earlier interventions. In short, we are failing our students at a much earlier age and sealing their fate long before the exam is taken starting in the 10th grade.

A high school diploma—and mastery of subject matters taught through the 12th grade is the bare minimum needed to secure decent employment in California. The exit exam has been the subject of lawsuits and has been the subject of anguish by many students and their families. This report shows how the problem really goes much deeper than just the exam, which many students just barely pass, even though it is measuring 8th grade math skills and 10th-grade English.

Unless you are involved in education policy or have a real curiosity about this issue, you may not want to read the full 97 page study and there is an excellent 2 page summary of what is in it.

The PPIC researchers were able to follow individual students over time using detailed data from the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD), California’s second largest school district. The data included grades, test scores, and academic environment.

Julian Betts, a PPIC adjunct fellow, who co-authored the study with Andrew Zau, a senior statistician at the University of California, San Diego, had this to say: "Now that we know we can identify students in the earlier grades who are likely to fail, it makes sense to help them while they're still in school and while they're being taught the basic skills that will be tested later on. We don't have to wait until the 11th hour or even worse, after students have failed and left the system."

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Here are the main points, according to the PPIC:

  • Fourth-grade GPA is an especially strong predictor of success on the exam. For every one-point increase in GPA, students increase their likelihood of passing the test by 11.6 percent. In later grades, GPA is a less significant predictor of success on the exit exam.
  • Classroom behavior in the elementary grades is nearly as important. Classroom behavior is more important than math and reading test scores in forecasting test performance. San Diego teachers evaluate students in categories such as "follows directions," "classroom behavior," and "self-discipline." The PPIC study translates these measures into a "behavior GPA." For every one-point increase in the behavior GPA in fourth grade, students increase their likelihood of passing the exit exam in 10th grade by 3.7 percent and in 12th grade by 5-6 percent.
  • Test scores are less powerful predictors, and they differ across grades. Math test scores in grades 4-6 are better indicators of success than English test scores, probably because the exam tests eighth-grade math skills. In grades 7-9, English test scores are better forecasters of success, probably because the English section of the exam tests 10th-grade English skills.
  • English learner status matters less in early grades than later on. Students who are classified as English learners in fourth grade are no less likely to pass the exam than their peers who are otherwise similar, but students who are still classified as English language learners in ninth grade are much less likely to pass the test.
  • High school teachers' qualifications play a minor role in test performance. Teachers' demographic background, education level, years of teaching experience, and credentials have only a small effect on students' chances of passing the exit exam. This is relevant in light of a lawsuit, Valenzuela vs. O'Connell, filed in 2006 and later settled, which contended in part that the exit exam should be not required because some students attend high schools where the teachers are not highly qualified. The PPIC study finds that even if teacher qualifications were equalized across high schools and among students within high schools, passing rates would change very little.

Providing remedial help to students in earlier grades when they are learning the material that will be on the exit exam would have a number of benefits beyond raising passing rates on the exit exam. It could improve results on the California Standards Tests and help schools meet achievement goals required by the federal No Child Left Behind law.


The study recommends an expansion of tutoring on a limited trial basis in randomly selected schools to identify the grade levels at which remedial help is most effective. Different approaches, from after-school tutoring to professional development for teachers, can be tested to pinpoint the most useful. These tests would provide a rigorous research basis for policymakers to determine when and how to best ensure the success of all students.

by Frank Russo
Publisher, California Progress Report

Originally published in the California Progress Report, on June 11, 2008. Republished with permission.