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Canceling Exit Exam Cheats Students—and California

New America Media, Commentary, Kirk M. Clark Posted: Jul 06, 2009

Using the false argument of cost savings to the state, the legislative budget conference committee took actions on June 16 that would suspend the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) as a graduation requirement. If implemented, this action would ultimately hurt thousands of students across California as they are left unprepared for the workplace and the future that awaits them.

The CAHSEE, which was authorized by Senate Bill 2 in 1999 as part of the state’s public school accountability program, made passing the CAHSEE a requirement for students to graduate from high school. The exam is divided into two sections: language arts (reading and writing) and mathematics. Based on the state’s Academic Content Standards, passing CAHSEE requires 10th grade language skills and mathematics aptitude through Algebra I (now an 8th grade requirement). Sophomores who take the test have eight opportunities to pass both sections; if they pass one section, they do not have to take that section again.

The Legislature’s proposal to suspend CAHSEE passage as a graduation requirement sends the absolute wrong message to students and undercuts the extraordinary efforts currently underway across the state to ensure students have minimum math and reading proficiency. Those extraordinary efforts have helped thousands of students to successfully master the content.

Take for example the successes we have witnessed with the class of 2008. When first administered in 2006, only 65 percent of the students passed the exit exam; by 2008, the passage rate of that same cohort had increased to 90 percent. And for English language learners, the passage rate went from 27 percent to 72 percent. For Latino students, it went from 52 percent to 85 percent. For African Americans, the passing rate went from 46 to 80 percent.

While there is still plenty of room for improvement in these numbers, for those students who received the remedial education necessary to pass the exam, the CAHSEE has served to focus attention and resources on students who are struggling. For these students, what they know is that there are adults around them who care about their success and who are going to take whatever steps ARE necessary to ensure they succeed.

With the demand growing for more high-skilled workers in California, the CAHSEE ensures that high school graduates have the minimum skills necessary to become productive participants in the workforce. We need to be preparing more students for the rigor and skills necessary to be successful in college, and the action by the Legislature takes us in the absolute wrong direction. What is worse, students who are currently receiving intensive remediation will be left behind, as schools no longer held accountable for their students’ success turn their attention elsewhere.

According to data from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card, California students perform poorly compared to other states. On average, they are one year of learning behind. Compared to the higher performing states, such as Massachusetts and Minnesota, they are two to three years of learning behind. The way to close this achievement gap is not to abandon accountability tools and interventions that have proven successful, but to call for higher expectations and continue to improve and support our teachers’ ability to get all students to grade-level proficiency on the state’s standards.

The actions of the Legislature also fly in the face of public opinion. According to a recent Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) survey, 69 percent of all adults and 74 percent of public school parents support passage of the exam as a requirement to graduate from high school. Among Latinos, 80 percent support the requirement.

While the economic crisis is forcing cuts in education so deep as to cause the first year-to-year reduction in per pupil expenditures since the Great Depression, California should not use this as an excuse to go back to the days of giving a diploma to students who can't read and do basic math. Instead, we should harness the power of those successful schools and school districts to give them the flexibility to expend their resources where they are needed most and to ensure that students receive the education they will need to be successful and productive members of the workplace and the future that awaits them.

Kirk M. Clark is the executive director of California Business for Education Excellence a nonprofit organization whose mission is to raise student academic achievement and close the achievement gap in California’s public schools. For more information about CBEE please visit www.cbee.or.

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

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