NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Studies Make The Case for Do-Or-Die Exams

April 25, 2003

Two new studies make the case that do-or-die exams -- which decide whether students graduate, teachers are dismissed or schools are shut in more than half the states in the nation -- have brought about at least a modicum of academic progress, especially for minority students who may get scant attention otherwise.

In their study published next month, Martin Carnoy and Susanna Loeb examined whether states with serious test consequences did better on a nationwide math assessment than their counterparts bearing none at all.

  • While there seemed to be little to no difference in the performance of white students, the study found that the more consequences a state imposed, the better its minority students typically did.
  • In fact, for every additional layer of sanction or reward placed on schools, teachers and children, about 3.5 percent more black students and 3 to 4 percent more Latinos grasped the basics of eighth-grade math.
  • The same pattern did not prove true for Latinos in math in the lower grades, but for black students it did, leading the authors to speculate that the threat of consequences may compel schools to demand more from students whom they may have otherwise written off.

No less importantly, the study found that do-or-die exams did not lead to more dropouts, as other researchers have argued. Still, there was no evidence that they improved graduation rates.

There is a caveat to all this data, educational researchers warn. Just because a correlation may exist between make-or-break exams and achievement does not mean the exams are to thank for any progress. Indeed, there are so many factors influencing test scores, be they economic or curricular, that proving a causal link between consequences and results may never be done.

Source: Greg Winter, "New Ammunition for Supporters of Do-or-Die Exams," New York Times, April 23, 2003.


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