The use of standardized tests to evaluate students and teachers have been a part of America’s education system since the mid-1800s. After the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act in early 2000, standardized tests were endorsed across all 50 states. Though there are proponents and opponents on the subject, two economics professors at Boston University have found a disturbing correlation between exit exams and incarceration rates.

In their study, Olesya Baker and Kevin Lang assessed the effects of high school exit exams on graduation, employment, wages, and incarceration rates. “There’s a modest reduction in the high school graduation rate, but it’s partially offset by an increase in the GED,” said Lang. “We find no clear evidence of effect on people’s earnings, but the one thing that we looked at that hadn’t looked at before, is that we found a really nontrivial effect on incarceration.”

According to the study, the exit exams increase incarceration by roughly 12.5 percent for students who do not pass the test. Half of the states in America require an exit exam for graduation, and about one percent of the students do not pass and do not receive a high school diploma as a result.

“We’ve seen this high-stakes testing regime really, very clearly, be part of the school to prison pipeline,” said education activist and History Teacher at Garfield High School, Jesse Hagopian. “[T]he testing that often leads to the school closures, and then the high-stakes in terms of denying graduation to students, all these things are contributing to higher incarceration rates, and teachers have known that anecdotally for a long time. [N]ow we have a study to show this unequivocally, what we’ve seen in the classroom.”

Critics have often argued, that high-stakes testing cheat students out of a quality education that cannot be measured by standardized tests. According to Hagopian, students “check out” during test prep time and are more likely to get off topic, off task and into trouble. These types of exams are about whether or not a student can eliminate wrong answer choices, and are not a good demonstration of what a student actually knows, Hagopian added. “To me, that is not intelligence,” he said.

Proponents of high-stakes exams have countered, that while standardized tests aren’t perfect, the solution is not to eliminate them. At the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association earlier this spring, Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, proposed a different kind of assessment, “assessment 2.0,” which would evaluate student performance in subjects beyond math and reading.

Though there are different proposals in the works when it comes to assessing student and teacher performance in public schools, opponents of high-stakes testing are gaining momentum. Educators, students, parents, as well as community members are boycotting standardized tests due to costs and the harmful effects they have on children and public education.

“Here in Washington State, we spend something like 80 million dollars a year on purchasing these standardized tests,” said Hagopian. “Could you imagine what [we] could do if we used that 80 million dollars for a reading coach instead of endlessly testing our kids? [If] we actually gave them the after school tutor or the reading coach to help get them where they need to be?”

According to a report by the Center on Education Policy, in early 2000, the costs for high school exit exams ranged “from $171 to $557 per student per year.” The authors note that the “price tag escalates sharply when states make efforts to increase pass rates, raise the cut score for adequate performance, or adopt a more challenging test.”

In an op-ed published in the Seattle Times, former Chancellor of Washington D.C. schools, Michelle Rhee, wrote that teachers should try to improve standardized tests not boycott them. “[L]abor unions across the country are fighting against using test scores as a factor in teachers’ performance evaluations,” Rhee wrote.

Rhee added that education reform organizations understand there needs to be an objective way to measure school performance and referenced how standardized tests in D.C. gave teachers incentive to improve student performance.

“[T]here is reason to be very cautious about using high school exit exams and to pull back from any kind of expansion of high school exit exams until we’ve had further study of their consequences,” said Lang. “I think we should be looking at both sides…The high-stakes testing are neither the wonder drug suggested by the proponents, nor the disaster suggested by the opponents, but honestly, I think the increase in incarceration rates is a matter of serious concern.”

Countries like Finland, currently outperform U.S. schools due to their practice of performance-based assessments, which are similar to a PhD where a student is required to conduct research, develop a thesis, and then defend that thesis in front of a panel, said Hagopian. Students are required to think and not simply fill in bubbles, he added.

Hagopian went on to say that he hopes Baker and Lang’s study helps the current movement against high-stakes testing because it has already helped in terms of giving more confidence to educators, such as the ones in Garfield High School, who refused to implement the MAP test earlier this spring despite criticisms and threats of suspension without pay. However, he is fearful that members of corporate education reform will not acknowledge this study.

“…I think Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, these people really need to be held accountable to this study. They need to have an answer to this study,” said Hagopian. “They need to be put on the spot and asked, if these tests are leading to higher incarceration rates, what’s your answer to that? I think, [they] owe an explanation to our nation’s youth.”

What YOU Can Do:

  • If you’d like to get involved in the fight against the school to prison pipeline movement, you can find organizations in your area by clicking here.
  • If you’re a parent of a student who is undergoing high-stakes testing at his/her school, write a letter to the principal expressing why you don’t want your son/daughter to be assessed by standardized tests.
  • Attend any forums in your community that discuss public education issues.