Publications & Resources

Standards and School Dropouts: A National Study of the Minimum Competency Test

Dec 1987

James S. Catterall

This article reports findings from a study of minimum competency testing in American secondary schools. The analysis focuses on tests that students must pass before they receive the high school diploma, a practice reported in about half of the 50 states. We explore the effects of these tests on low achieving high school students. A particular concern is the possibility that test-failure may reduce academic aspirations and thereby that test-failure may reduce academic aspirations and thereby contribute to decisions to drop out of school.

The study is based on series of in-depth interviews with educators in selected states, and on data collected face-to-face with more than 700 high school students. In one category of findings, the reports of test coordinators, school principals, and school counselors provide consistent echoes of a conventional wisdom that has enveloped high school exit exams: the belief that required competency tests are now so rudimentary that they cannot present much of a barrier to school completion. But at the same time, these educators report with uniform consistency that they do not have specific data on our question.

In a contrasting vein of findings, the students report experiences that pose a credible challenge to this conventional wisdom. Despite a strong majority of students claiming competency testing policies to be beneficial for a variety of reasons, we found that initial test failers are significantly more likely to express doubts about their chances of completing the diploma. In a fully specified general model which predicts self-reported chances of finishing high school, failing all or part of a required exit test is a robust independent contributor to doubts about the prospects of graduating.

Implications of our findings for research, policy making, and educational practice are explored.

Catterall, J. S. (1987). Standards and school dropouts: A national study of the minimum competency test (CSE Report 278). Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, Center for the Study of Evaluation.