Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction

Updated:  October 14, 2015.

California’s education system is transforming in positive ways. Replacing the high school exit exam with more modern and meaningful measures is a critical part of that work.

Governor Jerry Brown recently signed Senate Bill 172 into law, suspending the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) as a requirement for high school graduation for the next three years. It also requires school districts to grant diplomas to students who in the past were denied one solely because they did not pass the exam. I was proud to sponsor this bill, and I deeply appreciate state Senator Carol Liu, D-Pasadena, for bringing forward this urgently needed legislation.

The state Legislature created the exit exam requirement in 1999, and schools began using the test a few years later. Since then, however, the world – and California’s education system – have changed dramatically.

We have instituted new, more rigorous state academic standards. We have launched a more sophisticated assessment of student progress using online, computer-adaptive tests. And, we are moving toward a more comprehensive evaluation of schools that uses multiple measures instead of a single test score.

The current version of the exit exam was always meant to be temporary, according to the author of the legislation establishing it. Eliminating the old high school exit exam provides a great opportunity to develop a more effective approach to supporting our students. We must make sure that our high school graduates are ready for college and careers in the 21st century.

Students need a variety of skills to succeed in today’s economy. Our methods of gauging their progress should incorporate multiple measures. SB 172 requires me to convene a task force of teachers, parents, students, administrators and others to report back on new high school graduation requirements.

I look forward to exploring the options. One possibility is a senior or “capstone” project, in which students demonstrate what they have learned in an oral report, a paper or an exhibition. Another option is integrating community service into this work, so that our students learn “civics in action.”

In addition, a student could demonstrate career readiness by completing an internship at a local company, government agency, or nonprofit, and then producing a report about a potential career pathway. And a district may choose some combination of these approaches, customized to local conditions.

The search for a new high school graduation requirement is similar to our work developing a new accountability system. In both cases, we’re reinvigorating our schools by replacing 20th-century models with more thoughtful, contemporary 21st-century approaches.

As for the accountability system, the previously used Academic Performance Index has been suspended, and I have convened a task force to make recommendations for a new accountability system. The Accountability and Continuous Improvement Task Force is co-chaired by Wes Smith of the Association of California School Administrators and Eric Heins of the California Teachers Association.

The task force will study the issue and make recommendations early next year. Any new system should promote continuous improvement and better identify the needs of schools so they can receive the resources they need to improve.

On Sept. 9, the state released results of the new, online Smarter Balanced assessments in English and math. Certainly, those results will be part of any new accountability system, but the task force will consider other areas as well, including graduation rates, school attendance, chronic absenteeism, career readiness and school climate.

These are exciting times in California education. We continue to innovate and evolve. Finding new, more dynamic approaches to the high school exit exam and school accountability are two key components of transforming our schools and ensuring California’s bright future.

•••

Tom Torlakson is the state superintendent of public instruction.

Editor’s Note:  The updated version of this commentary clarifies that SB 172 suspends the CAHSEE for the next three years,  but does not eliminate it permanently. 

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Bill Younglove 4 years ago4 years ago

    I am absolutely fascinated by the evolution (and now withdrawal) of this "temporary" pass or you don't graduate from our high school(s) approach to California education. Multiple measures to gauge students' skills' attainments--yes, but let's not, please, have some future Superintendent of Public Instruction institute, as one of these, a "new CAHSEE"; only to say to the students, years later, "Oh, we were only joking!" Read More

    I am absolutely fascinated by the evolution (and now withdrawal) of this “temporary” pass or you don’t graduate from our high school(s) approach to California education. Multiple measures to gauge students’ skills’ attainments–yes, but let’s not, please, have some future Superintendent of Public Instruction institute, as one of these, a “new CAHSEE”; only to say to the students, years later, “Oh, we were only joking!”

  2. Doug McRae 4 years ago4 years ago

    First, there is no replacement for CAHSEE in sight. Good practice would be to plan a replacement and transition to the replacement before eliminating the prior program. Note that Common Core standards have yet to be implemented in half the high schools in CA, and a replacement based on Common Core is not needed until at least the Class of 2019 graduates, following long standing graduation requirement practices. Second, re launching a "more sophisticated assessment of … Read More

    First, there is no replacement for CAHSEE in sight. Good practice would be to plan a replacement and transition to the replacement before eliminating the prior program. Note that Common Core standards have yet to be implemented in half the high schools in CA, and a replacement based on Common Core is not needed until at least the Class of 2019 graduates, following long standing graduation requirement practices.

    Second, re launching a “more sophisticated assessment of student progress,” the Smarter Balanced computer-adaptive tests were launched before CC instruction was implemented in roughly half the schools and districts in the state, without documented validity reliability fairness, leading to problematic contaminated results especially for low wealth, English Learner, and Students with Disabilities subgroups. Even State Board President Kirst has indicated that Smarter Balanced results will not be useful until likely 2019 (SacBee, January 2014).

    Third, a credible new accountability system, one with multiple measures (a feature built into the 1999 API statute, but not executed) will still require a centerpiece statewide achievement measuring system, and now that won’t be available until almost 2020.

    The bottom line is the current Sacramento initiatives and actions destroy CA’s previous statewide assessment and accountability systems before new or replacement systems are ready, with the result being five years of information chaos in the trenches and five years of information vacuum for parents and taxpayers. That is the reality, not the political spin represented in this commentary.

    Replies

    • Andrew 4 years ago4 years ago

      Doug, your astute commentary is invariably a breath of fresh air. Objective testing in many endeavors originated as a reform to counter corruption, cronyism, favoritism and racism. Civil service exams are an example, designed to foster hiring based on merit and to prevent corruption and cronyism in hiring for public employment. Some years ago I had the privilege of interviewing at length regarding his educational experience an elderly gentleman who had graduated from … Read More

      Doug, your astute commentary is invariably a breath of fresh air.

      Objective testing in many endeavors originated as a reform to counter corruption, cronyism, favoritism and racism. Civil service exams are an example, designed to foster hiring based on merit and to prevent corruption and cronyism in hiring for public employment.

      Some years ago I had the privilege of interviewing at length regarding his educational experience an elderly gentleman who had graduated from Stuyvesant High School in New York City many decades prior. This gentleman was not only subjected to the NY Regents Exam to graduate, but he had to pass (gasp!) a rigorous entrance exam to gain admittance to highly selective Stuyvesant public school and its renowned STEM program.

      My interviewee came not from privilege, but from a poor first generation immigrant family. He was deeply grateful that standardized test entrance stores for which he worked long and hard gave him entry to a an educational experience that otherwise might otherwise have been reserved for the rich and influential. In California, to attain entry to anything approaching his high school education, a student might have to live in a neighborhood with homes costing perhaps two million plus. Late 1930’s New York seems enlightened in comparison and objectivity, using testing.

      If you or I are ever unfortunate enough to be rushed in a hospital with a myocardial infarction, we might emerge alive partly as a result of the pioneering work done as a physician and medical school professor by the gentleman I interviewed. He credited his Stuyvesant education as setting his life course. The atmosphere and culture of the high school were exhilarating. Without exception his fellow students were respectful and extremely eager to learn and to share knowledge. Invigorating after hours scientific discussions were the norm among students. The principal/dean had a PhD in physics and inspired rapt students with scientific demonstrations at assemblies. His English teacher was a night editor of the New York Times and was likewise inspiring. As we compared notes, I realized that my high school education, including the California part, was the palest shadow of his. I suspect those of the future will be even paler, despite the hype.

  3. Jim Mordecai 4 years ago4 years ago

    Now we wait for the other shoe to drop and a panel to provide a new exit examination? Research has shown exist examine is a bad policy. It doesn’t lead to more college attendance, doesn’t increase student learning, and doesn’t result in higher employment. But, it is successful in blocking students from employment.

    Exit examine is a bad idea that needs to be kicked to the curb.

  4. el 4 years ago4 years ago

    There are already districts that require senior projects and community service to graduate. It would be very interesting to read some stories about those, the challenges and the triumphs, and to get a sense how they work or could work in larger schools and districts.

  5. Nicole Hill 4 years ago4 years ago

    Thank you! I love this. It is a wonderful way to help students learn about the real world and get the experience they need to help prepare for future educational and career endeavors.