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A new study reveals states with high school exit exams have higher rates of incarceration and lower graduation rates

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

The School-to-Prison Pipeline Exposed, a new study that’s thus far received very little attention, has revealed that in states that use high-stakes exit exams, students who fail these tests were more than 12 percent more likely to face incarceration and had lower graduation rates than states without exit exams. Meanwhile, the study found no consistent effects of exit exams on employment or the distribution of wages.

Now joining us to discuss this study are two guests.

We’re joined by Kevin Lang. He’s professor of economics at Boston University. He has served on multiple National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences panels on education issues, including his most recent study, the effect of high school exit exams on graduation, employment, wages, and incarceration.

And we’re also joined by Jesse Hagopian. He teaches history and is the Black Student Union adviser at Garfield High School, the site of the historic boycott of the MAP test earlier this year. Jesse is an associate editor of the acclaimed Rethinking Schools magazine and founding member of Social Equality Educators, and blogs at I’

Thank you so much for joining us.



NOOR: So let’s start with you, Kevin. Talk about why you did this study and the most important findings of this study.

LANG: Well, I did this study because for two reasons. One is for 13 years I was an elected member of my local school board, and there were a lot of debates about whether our high-stakes tests were good or bad and who they were good for, and there wasn’t a lot of good work that has been done on that. And I also get very interested because I served on some of the National Academy of Sciences panels which were trying to assess the effect.

Now, the big results were: for most areas there really wasn’t much of an effect. It was neither wonderful nor terrible. We didn’t find big improvements in wages or people losing their earnings. We didn’t find a large increase in the dropout rate. We found a small increase in the dropout rate partially offset by people getting the GED. But the one really disturbing result was the one that you’ve emphasized, which is that we saw a noticeable increase in the incarceration rate.

NOOR: So, Kevin, particularly since No Child Left Behind was passed in 2002, we’ve seen a dramatic increase of high-stakes tests. And this has greatly expanded under the Obama administration. Talk more about why this finding should concern citizens of this country, especially people involved in public education.

LANG: Well, a lot of people have thought that high-stakes testing was really going to be the way that the United States could catch up and surpass Finland and Singapore. I think the overwhelming evidence from all of the studies we’ve looked at is that the effects are not dramatic. And what we’re finding is we’re not finding any positive effects in our study, and we’re finding one noticeably adverse effect. And I certainly think all of us should be concerned if indeed these sorts of tests increase the incarceration rate. That’s certainly not good for the society and it’s not good for the individuals who are affected.

NOOR: I want to bring Jesse Hagopian into this discussion.

Jesse, earlier this year you helped lead this historic boycott of your state’s standardized highs-stakes tests. What’s your reaction to this study?

HAGOPIAN: Well, I want to thank Kevin for doing the hard work and looking in the right places and doing this study, because I think it’s of immense help to educators across the nation. And it really shows what we’ve known for a long time. You know, I got started teaching in the 2001, 2002 school year just as No Child Left Behind was coming online, and I began teaching in Washington, D.C., in the shadow of the White House, only when you cross the Anacostia River, you’re in a hole ‘nother world. And I taught at an elementary school where we saw the lack of resources and the high-stakes testing just creating a social catastrophe.

The first assignment I ever assigned student to those students in sixth grade was a show-and-tell assignment. And they went home and brought something back from their home that really showed who they were. And every single one of those students reached into their brown paper bag and pulled out a picture of a father or an uncle who was in prison.

And this school-to-prison pipeline is a catastrophe in communities across the nation, and it’s being fueled by this high-stakes testing regime. It’s what educators have known for some time. And now we have concrete, irrefutable proof of that. And we, I think, will use that to build the best school system we can for our students.

NOOR: And, Jesse, within the last few years, there’s been a growing movement to oppose high-stakes testing. And you’ve become a leader and in some ways a spokesperson of this movement. You helped lead this one-of-a-kind boycott at Garfield High. What impact could this study have on the anti high-stakes testing movement around the country?

HAGOPIAN: Yeah, I believe very strongly in parents, students, and teachers taking action to refuse these tests wherever possible. You know, the MAP tests that we were asked to give in the Seattle public schools was not a graduation requirement for our students, but it was part of this testing regime culture, and it was a high-stakes test for teachers that drove our evaluations. And it was a test that isn’t aligned to our curriculum and continues to drive this culture of test prep in the classroom.

And the culture of trust rep in the classroom kills the love of learning. And when that happens, the whole thing falls apart because students check out. They’re more likely to be disruptive in the classroom. And then when you have zero-tolerance policies that have been copied and pasted from drug enforcement manuals into school manuals, what we’re seeing is students get pushed out of school with higher suspension rates, especially of students of color, especially African-American students. And then we see them more likely to drop out. And what that’s doing is basically just building a school-to-prison pipeline. And so part of my rationale for refusing to administer the MAP tests, for helping to organize the teachers at Garfield High School to refuse the map test, was to say, enough with the school to prison pipeline.

NOOR: Kevin, what kind of feedback and what kind of reactions have you gotten to this study? Because this does put this whole testing agenda, this whole testing regime, instituted in many states across the country, it kind of challenges the whole premise that these high-stakes tests will improve outcomes. And, in fact, as we discussed, it actually increases the worst outcome. It’s actually putting more students in prison. And just doing a simple Google search, I’ve noticed that this study has not been picked up by any major news outlets. It’s been blogged on a few websites. But can you talk more about the reaction it’s received?

LANG: Well, I mean, there are two places where it gets reaction. It gets reaction in the academic area, and of course people tend to be nice, so I don’t want to exaggerate, but people have been pleased that we were careful. We try not to exaggerate the results. There is–this is one study. There are other studies that can be done and other people can see if they find the same thing that we do.

That said, I have received various emails from people who are very interested in this result, because obviously it’s important if we find no positive effects and an adverse effect in a very important area where people obviously are being severely hurt if they are part of the group of people who end up in prison as a result of the high-stakes testing. Obviously that has elicited some interest at least in those quarters where people are already inclined to have their doubts about high-stakes testing.

NOOR: Now, since the economic downturn a few years ago, around the country in almost every state we’ve seen school budgets being cut. The one place that’s not being cut is high-stakes tests.

HAGOPIAN: We have five state-mandated tests that the kids have to pass at Garfield High School on top of the MAP test, which, thankfully, because all the teachers, parents, and students at Garfield, we voted unanimously to refuse the test at Garfield High School. And, thankfully, the superintendent, after threatening us with ten-day suspension without pay and other unknown consequences, he finally backed down and made the MAP test optional for next year. And so we scored a huge victory against that test prep culture. But we still have those five state-mandated standardized tests that are going to disproportionately affect low-income and students of color, drive down their graduation rates. And then we know the facilities and the jail cells that are being built right now to house them.

And in Seattle public schools, we were just audited by the Department of Justice, and they found that the suspension rates for black kids are twice that of white kids for the same infractions.

And so we see the machinery of the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s not a loose metaphor. It is a very consciously constructed project that needs to be deconstructed by people refusing these tests and by getting the study out that Kevin has done and making sure people understand the real consequences of a high-stakes testing regime. We can’t have cruelty as part of education policy.

NOOR: And, Kevin, let’s end with you. I wanted to give you a chance to respond to my statement about how you’ve seen school budgets being cut around the country. The one thing that’s not being cut is high-stakes testing, and as well as could you also talk about what you hope comes out of this study and how you hope people use it around the country.

LANG: Well, I think–I hope that it creates additional skepticism about high school exit exams as a effective way of reforming schools. I don’t want to come across as somebody who is absolutely opposed to testing. I have a more moderate opinion on that. But what we are not finding–this is consistent with what everyone else has found–we’re not finding large positive effects. We are finding some noticeably negative effects.

You can’t put as much of the education reform eggs into the basket, into the high-stakes testing basket as seems to be the case in the federal initiative. That’s what worries me. If we’re going to reform education, we’re going to have to think much more broadly and not think that just by doing a bunch of testing, things are going to change, ’cause they’re not going to change significantly for the better, and possibly for the worse.

NOOR: That’s right. And, as you noted, we’re using these tests to catch up with these other countries, for example, in Europe and elsewhere. But those countries, they don’t use these tests. We’re the only country that’s so obsessed with these high-stakes standardized tests.

But I want to thank you both, Kevin Lang and Jesse Hagopian, for joining us. Thank you so much.

LANG: Thank you.

HAGOPIAN: Thank you so much.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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