California High School Exit Exams

There has been a concern for some time throughout America regarding the quality of our public education. It seems the majority of students are graduating from high school without understanding the basics of the three R’s: reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic. Today, the focus of education has moved to measuring what students can do by requiring them to pass a standardized test before they can receive a diploma. As a result, many students are being denied their high school diplomas because they are failing to pass these state mandated exit exams.

In 1999, Gray Davis ran for governor of California on an “educational accountability platform”, and won (caljustice. org). During his first few days in office, then Governor Davis called the Legislature into a special session on school reform and proposed four major pieces of legislation; one was the high school exit exam (caljustice. org). Since the passing of this bill, it has become a heavily debated issue. The law states that every student in California must take and pass the California High School Exit Exam, CAHSEE, to receive a diploma (California Department of Education).

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The CAHSEE consists of two parts; the first is English-Language Arts, which is at a tenth grade level; and the second part is Mathematics at an Algebra I level (California Department of Education). In 2001, sixty-four percent of the students in California passed the English-Language Arts portion of the exit exam and only fifty-four percent passed the Mathematics portion (Mindfully. org). Critics of the exit exam would blame this on under-funded schools and inadequate schooling.

Ashley Williams of Crenshaw High School stated, “They’re putting us in a position to compete with students who have the resources that we don’t,” she also added that she “has gone weeks without text books in some classes and that at least four of her teachers have only emergency credentials” (Hayasaki, 2003). Another student, Manuel Saravia at Dorsey High School criticized the state for “failing to fix problems at his school such as overcrowding, violence, and under-qualified teachers, which in turn makes it difficult to learn” (Hayasaki, 2003).

He also stated, “Our classes are so overcrowded and the toilets are always dirty and broken. Being there doesn’t make me feel like learning, it makes me feel like leaving. ” (Hayasaki, 2003). In 2005-2006, California ranked forty-ninth in the nation on the student per teacher ratio; the U. S. average was 15. 2 students per teacher, while California averaged 21. 0; only two states, Arizona and Utah, had slightly higher averages (Comparing California). Even though California had one of the highest ratios, they were spending below average expenditures on education.

Whereas California spent an average of $8, 486 per student; most states with lower ratios were spending an average of $10,000 to $12,000, even as high as $15,508 (Comparing California). With overcrowding and lack of resources, teachers have resorted to mainly teaching students the material required to pass the high school exit exam, taking away time spent on a quality education. Critics of the exit exam also claim that the test is biased against some minorities and low-income students.

Compared to eighty-two percent and seventy-six percent of Whites and Asians, respectively, that passed the English-Language Arts portion of the exam, only fifty percent of Blacks and forty-eight percent of Hispanics passed that portion (CAHSEE). The figures are significantly lower for Mathematics; sixty-four percent of Whites and seventy percent of Asians passed, where as only twenty-four percent of Blacks and twenty-five percent of Hispanics were able to pass. Starting as early as second grade, schools use standardized tests to assign students to different “tracks”. Tracking is the practice of placing students in different classes based on perceived differences in their abilities” (Gordon, 1999). Remedial and special education programs and advanced placement classes are some examples as a form of tracking. Tracking at the high school level comes in the form of college prep classes and vocational tracks. On average, more than twice as many Blacks as White students are assigned to lower tracks in English and Math, and less than half are placed in higher tracks (Gordon, 1999).

In Selma, Alabama, their school district consisted of approximately sixty percent Black students and forty percent White students; at Selma High School, ninety percent of the white students were placed in the high-ability track, as opposed to only three percent of Black students (Gordon, 1999). Studies have shown that it is very difficult for children assigned to a lower track to move into a higher one; and instead of catching up they fall further behind every year they are in school (Gordon, 1999).

Since the exit exam is not given in any other language but English, it becomes language biased as well because students are being tested on how fluently they speak English. L. A. County schools have high percentages of minority students and low-income families and schools within these communities are twelve times more likely to lack basic materials and are six times as likely to have less experienced teachers than schools in White or upper-class communities (Gordon, 1999). As a consequence, these students aren’t being given an equal chance at a standardized education.

Not only does the color on someone’s skin determine the probability of passing the exit exam, but some critics believe that mandatory passing of the exam will also increase the percentage of high school dropouts. One study found that low-achieving students in states with exit exams were about 25% more likely to drop out of high school than comparable students in states without exit exams (Tyler, 2009). This further adds to the growing problem of keeping students in school.

The goal of the CAHSEE is to show students graduating from high school are competent in reading, writing, and math by the standards set by the state of California (CAHSEE). Supporters believe the exit exam will give the diploma meaning. They want students to feel they have earned their diploma instead of just receiving it for their time spent in school. They also believe that by passing the exit exam, students will have the knowledge and skills to be successful in future academic careers, in a job, and in life.

Jack Jennings, the director of the non-profit public education advocacy organization Center on Education stated, “It (high school exit exam) brings us into line with most other industrialized countries and it will cause great changes in high school curriculum. In effect, it’s the backdoor way to reform high school” (Olson, 2002). Even though the majority of students have been failing the exit exam, supporters believe this was a move in the right direction because it has helped public schools focus on academic standards.

To prepare for the upcoming educational changes, Algebra is now being encouraged to be taken by eighth graders so they can catch up to those in high performing foreign countries (Olson, 2002). There are also ideas of using the results of the exit exam not only for graduation, but also for college admissions, placement, and hiring decisions, which in turn will motivate students to put effort into their studies.

In a survey of past high school graduates, about seventy-four percent of the young people agreed they should have worked harder in high school; and about sixty-six percent said their school should have required them to meet higher academic standards (Bridgeland, 2010). Some supporters also think the exit exam shouldn’t cause too much pressure on the students because if they don’t pass either part of the exit exam in tenth grade, they have the opportunity to retake the failed portion multiple times (CAHSEE).

In addition to having several attempts at passing the exam, the districts must also provide supplemental instruction to assist students who do not pass the exam (CAHSEE). Some examples of supplemental instruction are after school programs and summer school designated to the exit exam material (CAHSEE). Supporters of the exit exam note that varying fields of occupations from certified nurse’s assistants to medical doctors must pass rigorous exams before receiving any credentials (Hayasaki, 2003); in a sense, the exit exam is preparing young adults early on for real life situations.

Furthermore, with the requirements at an eighth grade English level and tenth grade Math, it is considered too easy by some. Since the quality of our public education has declined in recent decades, advocates for the exit exam are hoping it will begin a reform on public education. Student achievement may continue to decline and students may continue to not graduate high school not on the level of California’s high school standards. However, since the exit exam has already been implemented, the government, educators, and the public are now aware there is a serious problem with

California’s educational system, which, in turn, could lead to a reconstruction on education. As Fair Test Public Educator director observes, “Believing that you can improve schooling with more tests is like believing you can make yourself grow taller by measuring your height”. All students have the ability to learn and succeed, but not on the same day or in the same way; therefore, they should not be given the same exam at the same time in their academic careers.