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Commentary of the Day - January 25, 2006: A Dialogue on the California High School Exit Exam. Guest commentary by Jo Rupert Behm with a response from the Irascible Professor.
Thousands of seniors in California high schools may not receive diplomas in June because they have not been able to pass the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). The law requiring California high school students to pass this test was established in 1999 to honor a campaign promise of then governor Gray Davis. The CAHSEE basically consists of an English language arts test and a mathematics test. The English language arts test includes sections on reading comprehension and writing. The writing section requires students to write an essay on a topic that they have not seen previously. The mathematics test also includes several sections on topics through Algebra I.
California requires students to complete more than 220 units to receive a high school diploma. The majority of these units must be taken in required academic subjects. The CAHSEE is basically unfair because students who have received passing, or better than passing, grades in all their required courses, but who have difficulty with standardized tests such as the CAHSEE will be denied their high school diplomas. The California High School Exit Exam is far from a perfect test. For example, the writing segment of the test requires students to write an essay in longhand on a topic that they have not seen before. They must do this without access to the usual computer composition, editing, and research tools that writers ordinarily use these days. Likewise, the test - for the most part - is an old fashioned pencil and paper, multiple choice exam. It does not give students any opportunity to demonstrate any of the technological skills they may have learned in high school.
The last independent analysis of the CAHSEE found that nearly two-thirds of all the CAHSEE test items had technical flaws such as formatting, readability, alignment, cultural bias, or even more than one correct answer, but these findings have essentially gone unnoticed.
Students who do not receive a high school diploma because they cannot pass the CAHSEE face rather bleak prospects. Most employers require a high school diploma for all but the most menial jobs. Likewise, their opportunities for any additional education are extremely limited. While students who do not pass the CAHSEE still are allowed to matriculate at the state's community colleges, they may find it very difficult to obtain any financial aid.
A remarkably large number of California high school students drop out each year. Some estimate that the number is as high as 60,000 per year. Factoring in results of the September 2005 CAHSEE, just over 116,000 current high school seniors have not passed one or both of the CAHSEE tests. Many of these are students who have attempted and failed the tests previously, so it is likely that a fairly large number of these students will fail again. Thus, some 40 to 50% of the students who entered high school in 2002 will not receive diplomas.
Many school districts have decided to forbid those students who have not passed the CAHSEE from attending graduation ceremonies and other senior events. Instead, these students will receive attendance certificates by mail.
California school districts can apply for allocations from a fund of $20 million that has been set aside by the state to help students pass the CAHSEE. In addition $44.7 million will be distributed to the 120 Special Education Local Plan Areas to help disabled students prepare for the tests. However, three bills that would have provided some alternatives to the CAHSEE for certain groups of disadvantaged students were vetoed by the governor at the behest of the State Superintendent of Education, who has championed the tests from the start.
However, just this month an agreement was worked out between state education officials and the legislature to grant a one-year exemption from the CAHSEE for students with physical, learning, or emotional disabilities. Governor Schwarzenegger has pledged to sign this bill (SB 517). Nevertheless, advocates for the disabled as well as advocates for students who are learning English as a second language continue to press for the elimination of the CAHSEE. A number of class-action lawsuits have been filed on behalf of these constituencies. Anti-CAHSEE activists argue that the grades that a student makes in his or her classes are more important than the test results; and, that the CAHSEE is a costly duplication of other California testing efforts such as the standardized exams that are part of the State Testing and Reporting (STAR) System.
© 2006, Jo Rupert Behm.
Jo Rupert Behm, M.S., RN is a state and federal public policy consultant and advocate for students with learning disabilities and minorities.
The IP responds: First, it is not really the case that the standardized exams that are given as part of the STAR system duplicate the CAHSEE tests. The STAR exams are designed to determine how closely the material taught in a given school aligns with state curriculum guidelines. Not all students are required to take these tests, and many of the tests cover a rather narrow range of topics. The CAHSEE tests, on the other hand, are intended to measure the achievement of the individual student, and they cover a relatively broad range of academic topics.
In a perfect world, the IP would agree with Ms. Behm that course grades alone ought to be a good enough measure of a student's achievement in the required courses. However, the world of K-12 education in California is far from perfect. There are many good schools in California that are staffed with competent and even excellent teachers, where high standards are maintained. But, there also are many schools that are mediocre or worse. They often are staffed with inexperienced teachers who receive little support in the classroom. In many of these schools students are passed from grade to grade and from course to course without having achieved minimum competency in the subjects that they have taken. For this reason, the IP believes that there is a place for standardized tests as part of the assessment process.
However, the premise underlying the CAHSEE invites scrutiny. With the transition of the United States from a manufacturing economy to an information and service economy, there has been pressure on the high schools to teach a curriculum that consists mostly of academic courses. The vocational and general options have disappeared from most high schools in favor of the courses that presumably will lead students to the college degrees that will allow them to compete in today's economy. The CAHSEE, with its emphasis on language and mathematical skills, really is aimed at testing how well prepared students are for college. The problem, of course, is that the traditional college or university program is not the best option for many high school students. Some students just don't have the intellect needed to cope with the rigors of an academic education. Others have interests that lie elsewhere. Ideally, high school should help them acquire the skills that they need to obtain gainful employment in areas that match their interests.
The community colleges have attempted to meet the needs of these students through the development of a wide range of vocational programs leading to the A.A. degree. While these are excellent programs, too many high school students who could benefit from them drop out of high school before they get that far, because they have become either bored or frustrated with the emphasis on academic courses. Certainly we need to encourage and nurture those student who want to go on to college; but, the high school curriculum should be broad enough to meet the needs and match the interests of all students.
Testing then becomes a bit more difficult. However, one approach might be to require students to pass an exam that tested for basic literacy and numeracy at the level needed for everyday living. Then students could be given the option of selecting a third standardized exam that tests either more advanced academic skills or more advanced vocational skills. Students who pass the basic exam would receive a high school diploma. Students who passed the more demanding academic or vocational tests (which might be practical in nature) would receive diplomas that carried a special endorsement.
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