Saturday, January 07, 2006

Students *Must* Pass the High School Exit Exam

California has two--count 'em, two-- officials who look out for public education. One is the elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the other is the appointed Secretary of Education. The latter merely advises the governor while the former has actual duties to perform.

In this article from the major Sacramento newspaper, Superintendent Jack O'Connell was pretty clear about whether or not students will have to pass the California High School Exit Exam this year, after years of delays:

Seniors who do not pass the California High School Exit Exam this year should be allowed to continue their education, but diplomas will be awarded only to students who pass the test, Jack O'Connell, state superintendent of public instruction, announced at a Sacramento news conference Friday morning. (emphasis mine--Darren)
Then of course, comes the very next paragraph:

Within hours, lawyers who oppose the exam said they will sue the state in the coming weeks to try to lift the exit exam as a requirement for this year's graduating class.

Color me surprised. Not.

I hear lots of squealing from the anti-testing crowd. "High stakes test" this, "doesn't test what they really know" that. Poor dumplings shouldn't have to show they learned something in order to get a diploma?

Let's be clear here. The California High School Exit Exam isn't a college entrance exam. It has two portions, math and English. The math portion tests only junior high math. It does include some Algebra I on it, but students could conceivably fail every Algebra I question and still pass the math section. Let's remember that Algebra I is a junior high math class and is the highest math course specifically required to graduate from high school.

In math, at least, the state is testing the absolute minimum. While I haven't concerned myself with the language section of the test, I'll assume it's equally targeted to the bottom rungs of learning.

Also, students have multiple opportunities to pass the test. Students take the test as sophomores; if they don't pass one or both of the sections, they retake the failed sections as juniors. Ditto for seniors. Three opportunities they get, three shots at showing the absolute minimum competence to justify the money spent on them by the taxpayers for 12 or 13 years.

I'm sympathetic to those parents who want their children to graduate, get a diploma, and move on. But if a diploma is to be anything other than a certificate of 12 years of seat time, if it's supposed to mean something educational, then passing the exit exam is the least it could mean. I'd support giving a "Certificate of Completion" to students who get their required units in school but fail the exit exam (how could that happen? but you know it does) and let those students walk across the stage at the graduation ceremony--I'm willing to be that much of a softie. But giving them an official document when they can't pass a junior high test? No, my touchy-feely side stops short of that.

There are some interesting arguments against the test. One is that it's so easy as to be useless. That's the one I'm most sympathetic to but I'll still lean towards having an easy test to having none at all. Another is that tests don't show everything students have learned. That's true, but I'm not interested in whether or not they've mastered Halo, learned the latest in text-messaging shorthand, or can dance like there's no tomorrow. I want to know if, after at least 12 years of education, they can string words together into coherent sentences and can solve arithmetic problems of the most basic kind. That doesn't seem too much to ask.

Of course, if they cannot do these things, it's not their fault. It's the fault of the schools, of the teachers, of our racist society (if the failures happen to be non-white), etc. Read the latter half of the article linked above--you get every argument you can think of, and then some. Fortunately, though, there is some sanity:

"Do we believe students can learn up to a middle school level education? And will we do what it takes to get them there? If not, let's not pretend we're doing them a favor" by granting diplomas to those who can't pass the test, she (an advocate for academic achievement in low income students) said.

And it's not like the Superintendent isn't offering options. Here are some, quoted from the article:

* Enrolling in an additional year of high school or independent study, subject to school board approval.
* Enrolling in an adult school program run by a K-12 school district.
* Enrolling in a charter school.
* Attending a community college that has a diploma completion program.

It doesn't look to me like we're just throwing people to the wolves here. In fact, if we bent over any further backwards we'd be freakin' gymnasts.


Old Math said...

Making a high school diploma meaningless does no one any favors.

Denying permission to participate in graduation activities is likely to be more effective as a motivator than a withholding a mere diploma.

How about offering different levels of diplomas? A blue seal means the student has a pulse at least several times a day. Silver seal means middle-school competency (the current CHSEE). Gold seal is for the real superstars - kids that know who Shakespeare was and what a cosine is.

This gives something for everyone, no student will have their delicate esteem blighted and employers will have an idea what they are getting when they hire.

Elaine S. said...

Actually, students get *6* chances to take the CAHSEE... Fall and Spring of each year.

As for exit exam testing... why are we even using the CAHSEE? We already have a wonderful exit exam written - it's called the GED.

As a teacher, I personally think we ought to be using the GED as the exit exam - and if the student passes it prior to their senior year, then future HS attendance should be optional. (It would work similar to the current system. You go to school AND pass the GED, you get a diploma. You just pass the GED, you get your GED certificate.)

Of course, the GED is a harder exam. It covers more than the sheer basics of Math and English. I fail to see how this is a bad thing, though!

Darren said...

Elaine, thank you for the correction!

I don't know much about the GED--would the student have to pay for it? Is it, like the SAT, run by a private company? If so, I can see why the state would opt not to use it. If not, your idea has merit.

EdWonk said...

We've linked this post over at The Education Wonks.

Polski3 said...

Maybe High Schools need to teach some basics that SOME of their students will find useful.....
MATH: Juan's customer orders two burgers, fries and sodas. The burgers are $1.35 each, the fries are $1.25 each and the sodas are $1.55 each. How much money does the customer need to give Juan ?

SCIENCE: Always cook the fries at 475 degree temperature. That is when this red needle on this round thing points to the 4, 7 and 5.

Language Arts: Complete this form:
Name ? Address ? City ? Social Security Number ? .......

I just hope that the powers that control such things as requiring the H.S. Exit Exam finally stick to their guns and demand that it is a requirement, no if's and's or buts.

Anonymous said...

I sure am glad we have the CHSEE. What better way to maintain the value of a high school diploma than by giving each student a whole bunch of tries to pass an exam that pegs its pasing score at somewhere around moderately competent 8th grader. But it gets better. . .let's create rules of administration of the test that cause nearly three-quarters of our students not to be in school for the better part of two days. I can't decide who is less intelligent: those who can't pass the CHSEE, or those who think that requiring passage actually connotes greater worth to the high schoool diploma.

My favorite complaint is that of parents whose kids get good grades, but can't pass the test: Possibly the only reason to administer the test is to find schools where that is actually possible so that we might shut them down.


Anonymous said...

food for thought - a 7th grader was able to pass the test. Anyone worthy of a diploma should at the bare minimum be able to pass this test.

Anonymous said...

There are some people for whom English is their second language. These students are often bright and extremely intelligent. They pass the Math with their eyes closed. But the English presents difficulty because spelling and grammar are difficult for them. This test may prevent many of these people from graduating and moving on to higher education where they can thrive in Math or other areas while continuing to work on English language skills. This test is cheap! And that's the bottom line. It's inexpensive to put a piece of paper into a scan-tron and wait for results. It's more time consuming and costly to have things like portfolios where kids are forced to defend the work they have collected over a period of four years. But that's not a price were willing to pay.

Anonymous said...

I have heard that someone getting a GED must now also pass the CAHSEE. Has anyone one else heard this? Where can I go to find out for sure? thanks.

Darren said...

Try this information from the CA Department of Education:

Pass the California High School Proficiency Exam (CHSPE), for students ages sixteen or over, to obtain a diploma equivalent.

California EC Section 48412 allows students who take and pass the CHSPE to receive from the State Board of Education a certificate of proficiency, which is the legal equivalent of a high school diploma. Information is available on the CDE Web site at

Pass the General Educational Development (GED) test, a national program for adults ages eighteen and older, to obtain a diploma equivalent.

The GED is a national test for individuals over eighteen or who are within 60 days of their eighteenth birthday (regardless of school enrollment status). Individuals can take the GED to demonstrate knowledge equivalent to a high school diploma. Students age seventeen years and out of high school for a minimum of 60 days are also eligible to take the test. The test is offered on a fee basis at testing centers throughout the state. Information is available on the CDE Web site at