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.