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Dumping the California Exit Exam is Not the Answer

New America Media, Commentary, Russlynn Ali Posted: Oct 06, 2008

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Once again, doomsday predictions failed to materialize with 90.2 percent of California's high school students passing the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) in 2008, making it evident that if expectations are raised, both students and teachers will rise to meet them.

Still though, CAHSEE results revealed achievement gaps separating Latino, African-American and low-income students from their peers. While White students passed the CAHSEE at a rate of 95.8 percent, only 85.8 percent of Latino and 80.1 percent of African-American students passed.

Among Asian students, 95.5 percent passed, but there are difference even among that group based on income and English language skills. While we don't yet have the ability to truly unpack the data, we know that there are many students in the Asian community not represented by these high scores. For low-income students and students of color, the data revealed last week paints a sobering, but all too familiar picture of low achievement in California schools.

This year's pass rate was slightly lower than last year's 93.3 percent, but that could reflect the fact that more student scores were included. The scores of special needs students were included this time but even they showed progress. For the Class of 2008, 53.8 percent of students with special needs passed the CAHSEE, up from 48.8 percent in 2007. Nearly 73 percent of English Language Learners passed, down from 77.1 percent last year. Clearly, there is still much schools need to do to prepare students from all backgrounds.

The CAHSEE continues to be controversial, with many arguing that it's unfair to require students, especially those with disabilities, to pass a test to get a high school diploma. But students have at least eight chances to pass. The exit exam only assesses middle school math and freshman and sophomore English and requires students to answer just 55 percent of the math and 60 percent of English questions correctly.

Critics also argue that schools don't provide our students with the resources they need to succeed. And on that point, they are right.

But eliminating the CAHSEE is not the solution. Prior to the CAHSEE, districts were not nearly as accountable for high school learning as they are now. Nothing before the CAHSEE, or since, has spurred the same level of intense and important high school reform in California.

Since the CAHSEE graduation requirement, tens of millions of dollars have been allocated to helping struggling students. Last year alone, $73 million dollars were targeted towards seniors in need of additional support to pass the CAHSEE.

Despite growing pains, the CAHSEE is part of needed reforms to the public school system. Parents understand that too. The vast majority of parents in low-income communities and communities of color want standards like the CAHSEE to hold schools accountable. And in our travels across the state, we have yet to meet any parent, including parents of special needs students, who want their child to be offered less, taught less or to graduate with less. No parent wants their child to be denied a diploma, but, overwhelmingly, parents want that diploma to ensure their child is graduating with the skill set necessary to forge a successful future in an ever increasing competitive and technology-based economy.

The debate ought not to be about whether the CAHSEE should remain. After more than seven years and despite waivers by the State Board, attempts by the legislature and court cases, it is here to stay. Now, the discussion should be about addressing the achievement gaps that the exam helps identify. In San Jose Unified, administrators are doing just that. CAHSEE passing rates in SJUSD 92.5 percent for 2008 exceed the statewide rate. The San Jose schools are increasing both the rigor and relevance of their curriculum, so their students are leaving high school ready for college and career.

San Jose district leaders have freed themselves from the crippling belief that demographics determine destiny. And across California, state leaders must encourage, using incentives and supports, other districts to do the same. Let us take the best practices of high-performing schools and replicate them across California. Let us place the most experienced and effective teachers with the students who need them most, give students access to rigorous college preparatory courses often and early, intervene sooner in the lives of struggling students with targeted resources and ultimately hold our schools accountable for aggressive student improvement.

Russlynn Ali is the director of Education Trust-West.

Related Articles:

A Simple, Successful Approach to California's Exit Exam

The Fifth Time's the Charm -- Getting Past the Exit Exam

State Education Chief Meets with Ethnic Media

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