The decision by an Alameda County judge on Monday to tentatively halt the exit exam for California high school students was a surprise twist in what has been a contentious, emotional debate.
It also reminded us of just how low our standards and expectations have fallen when it comes to our public schools.
The exit exam was established by legislation in 1999 but had languished since then, as advocacy groups complained it was unfair to students to deprive them of a high school diploma if they were not properly prepared for the test due to subpar schools. This year’s graduating class is the first one required to pass the exam to earn a diploma.
The test, established by then-state Sen. and now state schools chief Jack O’Connell, was created to establish basic minimum standards of proficiency and is, as O’Connell said Tuesday, a “cornerstone of California’s school accountability system.”
The state’s public school system by most measurements has steadily declined in the last four decades, and too often students were processed through the system and handed a diploma on the way out the door, with little thought given to gauging their preparedness for the global economy they were about to enter.
The establishment of the test raised legitimate questions about the desirability of suddenly asking students to exhibit knowledge that they had not been exposed to. But the test itself, targeted as it was at a level that would not result in mass student failures, inadvertently offered a sad commentary on the state of our public schools.
The test consists of seventh- to 10th-grade-level English, math and algebra (the test is given to 12th-grade students). Students can take the test multiple times, and they must answer just more than half of the questions correctly to pass. About 11 percent of high school seniors, nearly 50,000, have not passed the test so far this year.
Exams by their very nature will create a division between more-prepared and less-prepared students. Criticism of the test implies that no one should ever fail, and that even the low standards applied to the exit exam are too stringent. As every former student knows, an easy test that no one ever fails is a test with no integrity whatsoever. It would make a mockery of the diploma that it generates.
To teach our high school seniors that failing to correctly answer about half the questions on a test that is at least two grade levels beneath them — and failing that test repeatedly — is someone else’s fault isexactly the wrong message to send to them as they enter an increasingly competitive workforce. Unfortunately, it is the kind of message that has been sent too often in our educational system. The cries of unfairness upon news that a watered-down test designed to produce halting steps toward accountability may in fact hold some consequences — such as a delayed diploma — is a sign that we have gone far down the wrong path.