A Multilevel Analysis of Students and Schools on High School Graduation Exam: A Case of Maryland

By Fan, Weihua; Lissitz, Robert W. | International Journal of Applied Educational Studies, December 2010 | Go to article overview

A Multilevel Analysis of Students and Schools on High School Graduation Exam: A Case of Maryland


Fan, Weihua, Lissitz, Robert W., International Journal of Applied Educational Studies


As more and more states in the United States join the national testing movement, high school exit exams are now determining whether more than half the nation's public school students will graduate (Berman, Cross, & Evans, 2000; McColskey & McMunn, 2000). The State of Maryland has determined that passing a series of end-of-course High School Assessments (HSA) will be a graduation requirement beginning with the graduating class of 2009. The required HSA examinations measure school and individual student progress toward Maryland's High School Core Learning Goals, including four multiple-choice tests in English, algebra/data analysis, biology, and government. Students take each test as they complete the relevant course. Since 2002, students taking the courses associated with these assessments have been required to take the tests. Students entering grade 9 in the fall of 2005 are required to meet the state's high school testing requirement to graduate. One way to do this is to pass all four HSAs or obtain a combined score that exceeds the criterion.

School systems throughout the state have been preparing their students to pass these exams in order to receive a high school diploma. In order to improve the test passing rates and students' performance, the need to examine factors related to students, teachers, and schools associated with students' HSA performance has become urgent. It has been suggested that state educational officials must do more to help students who are likely to fail those exams (Bushweller, 2004). This motivation makes it especially important to discover potential predictors of students' HSA performance as early as possible in students' academic careers so that intervention strategies may be employed to help student succeed (Nichols, 2003).

Accordingly, this study sought to investigate the individual-level influences and school-level factors associated with students' HSA performance by using a multilevel framework. The key research questions for this study include the following. First, what students' social and academic factors are associated with their performance on HSA? More specifically, to what extent is students' performance on HSA predicted by available indicators of students' school behaviors and social background, as well as their prior performances on the state-wide Maryland School Assessments (MSAs) and/or other preceding examinations? Second, what teacher qualifications and school characteristics are linked to students' performance on HSA? Of particular interest is to not only make schools conscious of their effect on students' performance on HSA but also identify factors that can assist schools to help their students. Third, are the findings stable across the four school systems within the state?

High School Graduation Exams

High school graduation tests, initiated as part of the minimum competency testing (MCT) movement in the 1970s, have become popular in the last two decades. Twenty-seven state education agencies and the District of Columbia reported to have or plan to have graduation exams requiring their students to pass in order to obtain a high school diploma (Johnson & Thurlow, 2003; Sitlington, 2008). Graduation tests are expected to influence student achievement through both internal and external ways (Jacob, 2001). First, the internal effect of the graduation exam works through increasing student achievement motivation. One criticism of the traditional policy of graduation holds that low standards only based on students' attendance and school behavior rather than mastery of specific skills allow students to obtain their diplomas with minimal effort (Jacob, 2001). In the meantime, employers value the high school diploma but pay little attention to student achievement in schools when making hiring decisions. As a consequence, it provides weak incentives to promote student motivation. The high school graduation tests, on the contrary, set up rigorous standards and provide incentives to promote student learning (Betts, 1998; Costrell, 1994). …

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