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Only one exit

January 15, 2006

CALIFORNIA SCHOOLS CHIEF Jack O'Connell's decision to stick with the high school exit exam will have absolutely no practical effect. At the same time, it stands as one of the more courageous announcements to come out of Sacramento recently.

State law precludes O'Connell from doing anything but keep the exam. Still, his stance validates the importance of the test, which -- beginning this year -- students must pass to gain a high school diploma. His message: It's time to stop looking for ways to avoid the test and start looking for ways to pass it.

Specifically, he won't support any legislative efforts -- there were two last year -- to delay the test or to create alternative measurements that would allow a student to graduate. This usually means allowing a student to show a portfolio of work accomplished during high school, or to do some kind of special project. Such measures of achievement have their place, but there's no easy way for the state to know whether these represent the student's work or to grade them objectively throughout the state. Grading would have to be done by the individual school districts, which have a vested interest in passing their students.

Supposed advocates for low-performing students complain that it is unfair to send them out into the world without a diploma, diminishing their chances to get a job. But a diploma is not merely a credential, it is a record of accomplishment. What really holds back too many high school graduates, or sends them into dead-end jobs that will become extinct in a decade or so, is the lack of basic academic skills. Very basic: The test measures eighth- to 10th-grade knowledge, and it allows students to get up to 45% of the answers wrong.

There are still chances ahead for seniors who haven't passed the test by their fifth try. As long as they stay in school, or in an adult education program, they can continue taking it. O'Connell is seeking more funding for such programs.

But there is no reason to limit hope. Students who finish their required courses and move on to jobs, a financial necessity for many of them, should be allowed to keep trying as well -- no matter what their age, how many times they have taken the exam or how long it has been since they warmed a classroom chair. In the practical world, many people master math or reading concepts that once eluded them. The rules should be changed to accommodate and encourage such learning, even if it doesn't take place until middle age or beyond.

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