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A Time-Out for California's High School Exit Exam

New America Media, Commentary, Karen Bass Posted: Jul 06, 2009

Editors Note: Since 2006, all California high school students have been required to pass the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) in order graduate and receive their diplomas. But with schools facing drastic budget cuts, the state legislature is proposing a four-year moratorium on the exam because of the decreased resources going to schools and students. The following two op-eds argue opposing views on the proposed suspension of CAHSEE and the impacts it would have on students and on Californias economic development. Speaker of the Assembly Karen Bass supports the moratorium, while Kirk Clark, executive director of California Business for Education Excellence, thinks suspending CAHSEE would shortchange students and the state.

As part of its comprehensive package of budget-related spending cuts, revenue increases, and policy reforms the California Legislature proposes suspending the requirement that students pass the California High School Exits Exam (CAHSEE) to receive a diploma.

Although the CAHSEE law was enacted a decade ago, it has been fraught with delays and litigation and has only been in effect for four graduating classes. We propose a four-year moratorium.

Not surprisingly, the plan has been met with cries of outrage from certain quarters. But suspending the exam makes good sense in a budget crisis and as good educational policy.

First, consider our budget. California is facing an economic and budget crisis of epic proportions. We are watching the systematic dismantling of government in California. Transportation, public safety, environmental protection, state parks, colleges and universities are all experiencing unprecedented cuts. The governor has even proposed eliminating key elements of the health and social service safety net for children, the poor, the elderly, and the disabled.

Public education, too, is facing countless billions of dollars in cuts. Fiscal years 2008-09 and 2009-10 will see the largest disinvestment in public education since the Great Depression: Tens of thousands of teachers are slated for layoff. School support staff are being fired. Remedial programs are being curtailed. The instructional year is being shortened. Class sizes are being increased all over the state.

How can we pull the financial rug out from under our students, our teachers, and our public schools and still ask them to achieve the same outcomes? We clearly cant. Dramatic funding cuts have real consequences.

But the budget situation is only a part of the rationale for suspending the exam. Two months ago, Sean Reardon of Stanford University released findings of his research on CAHSEE. The results were disturbing, but also compelling and unassailable: CAHSEE has had a dramatic negative effect on the graduation rates of girls and on students of color. Graduation rates for girls in the lowest achievement quartile are 19 percent lower than before the exit exam was instituted; for students of color in the lowest achievement quartile, graduation rates are 15-19 percent lower. These effects are unrelated to school quality.

And finally, contrary to widespread assertions about exit exams, CAHSEE appears to have no positive effects -- and may have negative effects -- on student achievement.

The final paragraph of the study captures the implications of these findings much more eloquently than I could hope to:

This study provides no evidence that the CAHSEE exam policy as currently implemented has any benefits for students. It does not serve students well, and appears to have sharply inequitable effects. Moreover, California, like the twenty-plus other states that have exit exam policies, spends millions of dollars and a considerable amount of instructional time on exit exam test preparation, administration, and remediation. Our analysis suggests that, to date, this has been neither money nor time well spent.

The research is clear. CAHSEE, at least in its current form, is a failed experiment. Our students and our schools need at least a hiatus in its implementation to determine whether, or in what form, this test should continue in existence.

Karen Bass is (D-Los Angeles) is Speaker of Assembly.

Read NAM's complete coverage of the California High School Exit Exam here.

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