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Exit Exam Fails the Test

June 14, 2003

California has a lot of homework to do on the high school exit exam before requiring teenagers to pass it before graduating. Educators must resolve questions about what high schoolers have to know, how this exam compares with other graduation tests, where remedial help is failing and why a recent report shows that many students never got what they need from middle school.

Students entering senior year this fall are supposed to get a diploma only if they pass the exam. Yet close to half fail the exam, with the math portion the most bedeviling. Though students can retake the test, data show that the pass rate improves little with repeated tries, even after remedial help. The state Board of Education, facing potential lawsuits over the high failure rate, indicated this week that it will give students a reprieve, probably delaying the requirement for two years.

The exit exam mess results from a hasty attempt to impose impressive-sounding standards without thinking through the process. Students took the first tests before the new state standards were in place, before they all had the related textbooks, before the state made algebra a requirement -- even though algebra is on the test. This crop of high schoolers lacked the benefit of smaller class sizes, phonics instruction and other reforms.

A high school diploma should mean something more than a student's ability to warm a seat in class for four years. But the state hasn't figured out what. Should all high school grads be on track for college? Or is it enough for them to read with understanding, write a decent paragraph and handle basic math? California's math test includes questions like "What is the slope of a line parallel to the line y = 1/3 x + 2?" Minnesota's exam, as well as the nationwide exam for equivalency diplomas, tests only real-life math skills, such as the ability to read weather charts and calculate how long trips take.

Instead of one big exit test, Virginia and Tennessee use "in-course exams," similar to California's annual standards tests. Why not make basic mastery in those tests count as the exit exam? Other states, like Texas, make the exit exams progressively tougher as classrooms catch up to reforms.

It doesn't help that California never returns graded exit exams to the schools or students so they can see their goofs and work to remedy them. We all learn from our mistakes; that's an applicable aphorism for California officials, who have many to correct before they're ready to give a high school exit exam.

(Previous California exams accessible at www.cde.ca.gov/statetests/cahsee/resources.html. Scroll down to "Released Test Questions.")

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