In the current issue of the Economics of Education Review, Marcus Winters and I have an article about the use of exemptions to Florida’s test-based promotion policy. Under Florida’s policy students need to perform above a certain level on the 3rd grade reading test to automatically be promoted to 4th grade. If students score below that level they can still be promoted if they are granted one of various exemptions. Some of those exemptions are objectively measured, like scoring well on an alternative test or having certain special ed or English Language Learning classifications. But other exemptions are more subjectively determined, like having a portfolio of work worthy of being promoted.
Marcus and I looked at who received those exemptions and whether being exempted was beneficial. We found that African-American and Hispanic students were less likely to receive exemptions and get promoted, controlling for other factors. That is, minority students with the same test scores and economic status were less likely to be exempted from retention if they fell below the testing threshold. The test-based policy is not racially biased, since all students who lack the academic skills to pass the test may be retained. The bias is introduced in who gets exempted from that test-based policy.
And the irony of it all is that failing to receive an exemption actually benefited those minority students academically. That is, students who were denied the exemption and repeated third grade outperformed their promoted colleagues on achievement tests two years later. The retained students had more academic skill at the end of 4th grade than their comparable promoted peers at the end of 5th grade — despite being exposed to one less grade of curriculum.
Minority students denied the exemptions may have been the vicitms of discrimination, but they ended-up making greater academic progress as a result. Receiving those exemptions wasn’t doing many of the other students any favors.