Silver lining to rejection of high school exit exam

We all remember the inspiring children’s tale about the little engine that could. The engine chugged up the steep tracks saying, “I think I can. I think I can.”

We forget where the little engine was going and don’t think to ask where it got its fuel, or whether the little engine was on the right track.

The saga of the California high school exit exam is a lot like the story about the little engine. We challenge students to get up the tracks but aren’t really sure we’ve supplied adequate diesel fuel or sent them in the right direction.

The Alameda County judge who issued a preliminary injunction Friday, suspending the exit exam for this year’s senior class, has been roundly criticized. After all, Judge Robert Freedman’s critics suggest that kids certainly should be able to demonstrate some basic competencies before they get a diploma, regardless of the quality of school they attend.

Freedman concluded, though, that “students in economically challenged communities have not had an equal opportunity to learn the materials tested on the [California High School Exit Examination].”

Forty-seven thousand seniors are affected by Freedman’s ruling. The exit exam, which should more appropriately be called a high school entrance exam, tests students at an eighth-grade math and ninth- and tenth-grade English level. Fifty percent is a passing score and students can take the test multiple times.

While Freedman’s detractors are right to suggest that graduating woefully unprepared seniors undercuts the value of a high school diploma, Freedman is equally correct in implicitly condemning our vastly unequal public education system, which should never have allowed those students to reach the senior brink.

In fact, our educational failures are more basic and profound than passing a group of unqualified seniors would suggest. Ninety percent of the graduating seniors in our public high schools are unaffected by Friday’s ruling, as they had previously passed our “junior” high school exit exam. That is the majority to whom we should direct our focus.

Our top third of graduating seniors are eligible to attend California state university schools, and therein lies the much larger educational fraud. Those students typically enter the CSU system with high school grade-point averages around 3.3 on a 4-point scale. Yet 60 percent of California state university matriculants annually are required to take a remedial math and/or English class as a condition of admission.

Glance sometime at the many pages of CSU course catalogues filled with high school-level classes, for which students will receive no college credit. In other words, the majority of our top high school graduates are not ready to do college level work.

Was it a mistake for Freedman to mandate that students who cannot do ninth- and tenth-grade work are entitled to nevertheless graduate from their respective high schools? Probably. But it would be an even bigger mistake to make either Freedman or the students who will now enjoy his largesse the fall guys. In fact, if Freedman’s decision prompts a larger debate about our systemic failure and a corresponding dedication to educate all levels of students, there may be a silver lining to the judge’s verdict.

Patrick Mattimore teaches psychology at a college preparatory school in San Francisco. He previously taught for more than 10 years at public high schools in San Mateo County.

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