Nervousness overcame Carlos Genchis, 18, as he sat down to fill in the bubbles the second time he took the high school exit exam.

He already felt stupid after failing the English portion of the test once. Studying more or getting tutored had seemed useless to him. And as he stared down that dreaded test, he knew that failing could keep him from getting his diploma, barring him from many jobs and a college education.

“I was thinking, ‘Am I going to pass it or not?’” Genchis said. “I got so worried that I didn’t pass it. I wasn’t thinking about the test.”

Queasiness over tests is nothing new. Teachers who coax struggling students to pass the test in San Diego Unified say that overcoming teens’ stress and fear is half the battle.

But a new study from Stanford University suggests that stressing over the high school exit exam is a far bigger problem for girls and students of color than their classmates who are white or male because they underperform even when they have similar scores on previous tests. It draws data from San Diego Unified and three other California districts to draw some troubling conclusions: Instituting the exam has not boosted student scores. And it has slashed the graduation rates for minorities and girls, even when compared to white and male classmates with the same academic chops.

Researchers chalk up the gap not to poorer schools, biased tests or low expectations, but to a more elusive threat: The power of racist and sexist stereotypes to undercut how students perform on stressful tests. It is a controversial finding on an already politically sensitive test that deeply divides educators and experts on what it should take to graduate.

“What I am worried about is that you take a white student and a black student who have the same test scores in 8th grade. The same test scores in 9th grade. The same test scores in 10th grade … and the white student performs much higher than the black student on that test,” said Sean Reardon, associate professor of education at Stanford University, who led the study. He added, “The reality seems to be that it takes a higher level of skill for minority students and girls to pass the test. That is a real problem.”

Setting the Bar or a Stumbling Block

Researchers and activists have long had qualms about the weighty exam, which decides who will graduate and who will not. It is a radically different creature than most state tests, which are used only to judge schools or gather data and have no consequences for the students who take them. California has repeatedly been sued over the test and how it is implemented, prodding the state to add more interventions for teens who initially fail the test.

But it is also a prized way to raise standards in schools, staunchly defended by the state superintendent and other reformers who want schools to become more rigorous to meet the growing demands of a tougher global economy. Proponents argue that a state diploma needs to mean something so that all California schools have the same yardstick.

“I believe that the biggest mistake we could make is to view this report as a reason to lower our expectations for any student, but especially for our students of color and females,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell wrote in a press release responding to the Stanford study. He requested that his staff and outside evaluators scrutinize the study to find ways “to better meet the educational needs of all students.”

California installed the exam nearly three years ago to set a minimum bar for a high school diploma, pegged at the sophomore level in English and middle school in math. That might seem like a low hurdle, but the exam has proved a stumbling block for many students. Questions range from calculating percentages and square roots to extracting the key ideas in a sample paragraph from an essay, a play or an employee manual. But studies of the exam and its effects have been mixed. Many questions are still unanswered.

Nearly a quarter of San Diego Unified students fail either exam in their sophomore year. Some have to take it over and over before passing. A small minority of 80 students failed to graduate last year solely because of failing the exit exam, even though they met all the other requirements to graduate, said Peter Bell, director of research and reporting in San Diego Unified. They are disproportionately Latino and African American students and almost two thirds of them are girls. That mirrors statistics countywide, where roughly one percent of high school seniors had not passed the exam before the end of last year.

“The questions are confusing. You don’t even know what they’re trying to ask you,” said Grethel Sagrero, a 17-year-old student at the alternative Mark Twain High School who has taken the test three times.

For some it has become a stumbling block. “I’ve heard all these people say, ‘If I don’t pass this time I will give up,’” said Antoinette Jarrells, a Twain High student who is waiting to see if she passed the math portion of the test. “It makes you feel like that — it really does.”

‘More Baggage That You Have to Deal With’

The Stanford study, funded by the James Irvine Foundation, traced students in San Diego, Long Beach, Fresno and San Francisco over three years from 2005 to 2007, before and after the exam became a graduation requirement. Reardon and his colleagues found that scores on the 11th grade English test did not rise when the exit exam was instituted. And they found that struggling students, those in the lowest fifth of their classes based on their previous test scores, were 15 percent less likely to graduate when the high school exam was in effect.

That graduation rates dropped when the exam was required is not surprising. The whole idea of setting a bar to graduate is that some students will pass it and some will fail. But what worries Reardon is that the bar seems to be more difficult for girls and students of color than for their white and male classmates, even when they have already matched them on other standardized tests.

Among students who struggled with the tests, girls and students of color perform worse on the exams than their scores on previous tests with lower stakes would predict. They performed better on the California Standards Tests — a statewide exam that has no impact on whether a student graduates — and then fumbled on the stressful exit exam. The result is that 10 percent of students of color and 5 percent of girls who failed the test would otherwise have passed it if they were not underperforming, Reardon said.

Graduation rates dropped 15 to 19 percent among students of color in the lowest fifth of their classes and only 1 percent among white students with similar academic histories, according to the study. Struggling girls’ graduation rates dropped 19 percent while their equally struggling male classmates’ rates dropped only 12 percent.

“His results are a little disturbing,” said Lauress Wise, a principal scientist at the Human Resources Research Organization, a research group that studies the exit exam for the California Legislature every year. “It seems that even down in the lowest range, minorities have been disproportionately impacted.”

The problem does not seem to be weaker schools in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods, Reardon said, because the gap remains when students are in the same schools. Nor do they believe that the test is skewed towards white students or boys.

Instead, the researchers believe the problem is rooted in “stereotype threat” — the crippling fear that a person will confirm a negative stereotype about their own race, religion, gender or other group. It is a relatively young and controversial theory in a growing field of research. The idea is that girls who are worried about proving the old canard about girls struggling with math will struggle with math tests. Latinos who worry about justifying stereotypes of Latinos struggling with English tests will falter in English.

Steven Stroessner, a professor of psychology at Barnard College, described a recent study that found that women using driving simulators were more than twice as likely to hit a simulated jaywalker when researchers told them that they were studying whether women were worse drivers than men. He was unfamiliar with the California exam but called such stressful tests “a recipe” for stereotype threat.

“If you belong to a group where people don’t think you’re going to do well,” Stroessner said, “you have more baggage that you have to deal with.”

Reardon and his colleagues did not interview students to judge what they were thinking about during the tests. Nor did they have physiological evidence such as brain scans to gauge. But they found that stereotyping explained their results better than any other theory they could muster, from poor schools to biased tests to tracking students.

“This is our best guess of what it is,” Reardon said.

How — Or If — The Exam Can Be Fixed

The contentious study seems to throw the fundamental fairness of the test into question. But Wise and other researchers are skeptical of killing off the exit exam, which has drawn attention to just how far some students have fallen behind, without a lot more research.

Wise cautions that the conclusions that Reardon has drawn on whether the exit exam boosts student achievement are based on the results from a single exam — the California English exam for 11th graders — and not on earlier or even later measures taken in senior year or beyond. Other studies show that the exam has pushed schools to toughen instruction and make sure that they are teaching what is tested, said Wise, whose own research shows that passing rates have risen among sophomores and juniors since the test was first introduced.

“I feel that it would be a mistake to cancel the exam because of this,” said Julian Betts, a University of California San Diego economics professor whose research has shown that schools can identify students who will struggle on the exit exam as early as 4th grade. “But intervening earlier would do wonders to help students pass the math part of the exam. … It is worrisome that kids are having trouble with pre-algebra as late as grade 12.”

Others are now left wondering how — or if — the exit exam can be fixed. Stereotype threat is rooted in societal issues that are beyond the scope of the tests. But studies show that stereotype threat can be minimized if students are told that anyone can do well on the test if they persist and study, rather than being told that the test measures their ability. Reducing the anxiety around the test is another way to defuse stereotype threat.

That is exactly what teachers do at many schools tailored to struggling students. A cheery sign in the hallway at Twain High reads “The tassel is worth the hassle” and advertises free food and bus tokens for an exam preparation session. Math teacher Tina McGlathery said she “backs off” the day before the test and encourages her students to take deep breaths and go slowly. Larry Mikulanis, a veteran teacher who has spent nearly two decades at Twain, said he coaches teens both on grammar and getting over stress.

“The fear stops them sometimes,” Mikulanis said. “Sometimes they are just test-phobic. I was the same way. You see the test and all of a sudden your mind goes blank. It’s a matter of getting the fear out of them.”

Genchis finally passed the English portion of the exam on his third try after getting help at Garfield High School, another alternative school for students who struggle in conventional high schools. He believes he succeeded because of his teachers’ advice.

“They said, ‘It’s just a test,’” Genchis said. “‘It doesn’t tell everyone how smart you are. So don’t get nervous. Do the best you can.’” He plans to graduate next year.

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