Don’t drop the exit exam

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

Cal­i­for­nia’s high school exit exam is cer­tainly due for re­vi­sion. The test, which re­quires high school grad­u­ates to demon­strate rea­son­ably pro­fi­cient read­ing and math skills to grad­u­ate, is out of step with the newly adopted Com­mon Core stan­dards, and align­ing it with the new cur­ricu­lum is im­por­tant. But elim­i­nat­ing it al­to­gether would de­value diplo­mas and make new grad­u­ates less em­ploy­able.

Yet the Leg­is­la­ture ap­pears headed to­ward ex­actly that, which would be a ma­jor mis­take. The exit exam was put in place in 2006 to counter grade in­fla­tion and so­cial pro­mo­tion, af­ter too many stu­dents with high school diplo­mas were found to lack the ba­sic skills for even mod­est jobs. Ris­ing grad­u­a­tion rates are de­sir­able, but only if they in­di­cate a bet­ter-ed­u­cated pop­u­lace.

SB 172, which passed the Se­nate last week, would elim­i­nate the test for at least three years while an ad­vi­sory panel ex­am­ines whether the state should have any kind of exit exam at all, and if so, what min­i­mum stan­dards it should set for grad­u­a­tion and how a new test would be de­signed.

Th­ese are all ques­tions worth study­ing, but that shouldn’t mean drop­ping the test in the in­terim — es­pe­cially since the vague word­ing of the bill makes no com­mit­ment to re­in­stat­ing the test af­ter the three years are up in 2020 and fails to set a firm timeline for even mak­ing a de­ci­sion.

Even if the panel rec­om­mended keep­ing the test, the state would lose valu­able time. In fact, it would lose more than three years, be­cause stu­dents don’t just take the test once but are given many op­por­tu­ni­ties to pass it, start­ing in 10th grade. Even if a new test were in place in 2020, it couldn’t take ef­fect right away be­cause se­niors wouldn’t have had those pre­vi­ous chances.

Crit­ics of the test point out that many of the stu­dents who pass it aren’t pre­pared for col­lege cour­ses. That’s right. The high school exit exam was never in­tended to mea­sure col­lege readi­ness; its pur­pose was to en­sure that stu­dents were grad­u­at­ing with rea­son­able lit­er­acy and nu­mer­i­cal skills learned in eighth- and 10th-grade cour­ses. Not ev­ery­one is headed to col­lege.

In­de­pen­dent re­views have con­sis­tently praised the state’s exit exam. Pass rates have im­proved markedly since the re­quire­ment be­gan, and now more than 95% of stu­dents pass by the end of se­nior year. The test prod­ded schools to give the in­ten­sive re­me­di­a­tion that kept many stu­dents, es­pe­cially dis­ad­van­taged teenagers in low-per­form­ing schools, from be­ing able to progress in their stud­ies. De­spite pre­dic­tions oth­er­wise, grad­u­a­tion rates rose.

The ex­ist­ing exam might not mea­sure ev­ery­thing it should. But un­til that’s fixed, it’s a lot bet­ter than mea­sur­ing noth­ing.

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