Tuesday, June 21, 2005

California's High School Exit Exam Woes

From the San Jose Mercury-News, here is a pretty good opinion piece about all the problems with California's High School Exit Examination. (Known as CAHSEE, see the State's website here.) The test's implementation was postponed two years ago. It is planned that beginning in 2006, students who do not pass are to be denied their diplomas. One key passage from the article:
Our research on state graduation policies shows that states that have successfully raised standards and improved graduation rates have done several things California's policy does not yet do:

First, as currently proposed by Assemblywoman Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, AB [Assembly Bill] 1531 would consider students' academic records and performance assessments such as essays, research papers, science experiments and senior projects along with the exam when making graduation decisions.

States like Oregon, Washington, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maine and Rhode Island -- all higher achieving than California -- require these kinds of performance assessments as part of the graduation decision. This is both to ensure that the decision is valid -- testing experts agree that important decisions should not be made on the basis of a single test -- and to ensure that students will encounter the kinds of challenging work they will need in college and the real world. Most research finds that too much teaching to multiple-choice tests ultimately "dumbs down'' the curriculum, whereas tasks that require research, writing and oral presentation increase instructional quality and rigor.

Second, nearly all other states have also developed appropriate and valid assessments for students with disabilities and those who are limited-English-proficient -- something California has not yet done. Such alternatives are essential to make the exam legally and educationally defensible, and their lack poses a major problem for California and its students. A recent study, for example, found that 70 percent of California's special-education students have failed the exit exam. So have more than 40 percent of students in the state's 144 lowest-performing schools -- schools that typically lack qualified teachers as well as adequate textbooks and facilities.

Third, they have invested significantly in improving education for at-risk students. Texas, for example, not only offers alternatives for students with special needs, it also allocates $1.1 billion annually to support low-achieving students in high-need districts. By comparison, the recently passed bill by Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, SB 517, promises only 5 percent of this amount to support California's struggling students. The handful of states that have enacted exit exams without alternatives have experienced sharp declines in graduation rates, and researchers have found that schools sometimes boost their accountability ratings by pushing out students who score poorly, so that the average scores will go up. Emphasis on drilling for the test has often led schools to neglect higher order skills. One recent study found that states using exit exams as the primary graduation measure not only had higher dropout rates for at-risk students but declines in SAT scores for students as a whole.
My guess is that when it comes time to actually implement the test, one of three things will occur: it will be postponed yet again, "dumbed down" so that a larger percentage pass, or the test will be shelved altogether.

Another alternative is that the exam's importance may be reduced as non-testing factors (such as those addressed by AB 1531) are considered which would allow students to graduate without passing the test.

In 2004, more than 25% of the state's students
did not pass the test. Passing the test was not a requirement for graduation.

The reasons why the test will probably not be implemented as planned have more to do with realpolitik than with pedagogy. When push comes to shove, a significant number of students, possibly as many as 1 in 5, will be unable to pass this examination. It's my opinion that the EduCracy (and their legislative masters in the State Assembly) will be unwilling to deal with the political firestorm that would be caused by the thousands of unhappy parents who will be undoubtedly outraged because their children will not be graduating (in spite of passing report card grades) with their class.

It's going to be a very interesting to see how this plays out.

Entries for tomorrow's edition of The Carnival of Education (Guest hosted by Jenny D) are due tonight by 10:00 PM Eastern. Submissions should be sent to: jdemonte [at] comcast [dot] net. To view last week's Carnival, (as well as entry guidelines) click here.

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