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This Is an Exit Worth Taking

June 09, 2005

One of the more important reforms to come to California's high schools, the exit exam, is going forward thanks to the state Senate. Too bad the Assembly went off course by passing a measure that could seriously undermine the exam.

Lacking the votes to pass a bill that would have delayed the exam indefinitely, Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) turned a potentially destructive measure into a positive one. The new bill does not interfere with the exam, scheduled to take effect with the class of 2006, but it requires that the state Education Department monitor the test's effects on students and examine the high failure rates in certain schools. It also includes $57 million to help students pass at these schools.

The exit exam is one of the few reforms that pushes students as well as schools to work harder. Like nothing else before, it has illustrated how often schools graduate kids without requiring them to learn the material. Too many students, meanwhile, don't even try to do the work, knowing they can probably get a diploma anyway.

The exam already has prompted many schools to teach required course material on time. They now identify struggling students at the end of 10th grade and give them remedial help. As a result, two-thirds of the state's class of 2006 passed the exam on the first try last year. Those who flunked get five more chances.

The test will unmask schools that let students down. There will be outrage, public humiliation, possible lawsuits and, under Romero's bill, a close investigation of what's going on. Nothing else has compelled the needed reforms; this might.

It won't happen, though, if another bill that passed the Assembly makes it through the Senate. The bill from Assemblywoman Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) would allow school districts to devise other assessments, with state approval, for those who flunk the exit exam.

Bass is justifiably worried about students who have trouble with tests. There are other ways to measure achievement -- and it's not ideal to have a test determine something so important -- but Bass hasn't come up with a valid, objective way to measure what students have learned. Local schools and districts will always have a vested interest in letting students squeak through. But they're not doing the kids any favors.

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