Fate of high school exit exam undecided

September 17, 2014

While the state’s standardized testing program is being revamped during the transition to the new Common Core State Standards, the fate of the high school exit exam – the one test students must pass – remains murky.

In overhauling the state assessment system last year, officials postponed a decision about the exit exam, which students need to pass in order to receive a high school diploma. Most other tests are on temporary hiatus while students take a practice test aligned to Common Core. The voluntary standards, adopted by California and 42 other states, set common requirements for what students should know in math and English.

But the exit exam – aligned to the old state standards – remains in place as a requirement for graduating seniors. The most recent scores, for the class of 2014, are expected to be released Friday.

Officials must now return to discussions about the future of the California High School Exit Exam, whether or how it should be revamped to meet the Common Core standards and whether it should be required as a separate assessment at all.

Any change to the test would require action in the Legislature, and state officials could seek clarity on the exam when the next legislative cycle begins in December, said Diane Hernandez, director of the assessment development and administration division of the California Department of Education.

“We want to have conversations about whether to continue with the graduation assessment first, and second, what that could be,” Hernandez said.

The 2013 law that suspended most testing requirements, Assembly Bill 484, was mum on the exit exam, but did set a 2016 deadline for the State Board of Education to present a comprehensive testing plan to the Legislature.

A January 2013 report from State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson recommends considering “alternatives” to the exit exam. Among them:

The results of the Smarter Balanced tests could be one predictor of the future of the exit exam.

California Department of Education

A sample algebra question from the California High School Exit Exam. Click to enlarge. Answer: A

Students in grades 3 through 8 and 11 tried out the test in practice sessions this school year. Students will begin taking the real test in spring 2015 and the first meaningful results could be available by summer 2015, said State Board President Michael Kirst.

The tests go beyond the multiple-choice assessments of the past and are designed to test critical thinking and reasoning skills. And the tests are computer adaptive, meaning the questions get easier or harder, depending on how many questions a student answers correctly. Officials anticipate the new tests will provide a better understanding of student strengths and weaknesses and more meaningful results on academic progress.

“I think once we see the Smarter Balanced results we will know more” about what to do with the exit exam, Kirst said.  “It’s possible that once we see what’s going on with that, we could rethink the high school exit exam. We want to see what that adaptive ability adds to our understanding of the high school exit exam.”

California isn’t alone in grappling with the issue, Hernandez said. The more rigorous academics required under Common Core are prompting a number of states to revisit their exit exam requirements.

A goal of Common Core is that students graduate with the skills they need to succeed in college and careers, raising questions about the role of an exit exam under the new standards and sparking discussions about the meaning of a high school diploma.

The exit exam was created in 1999 under a state law authored by Sen. Jack O’Connell, who later became state superintendent of public instruction. The exam’s purpose was to ensure that students met basic proficiency in math and English before they obtained high school diplomas, but not to measure the higher bar of whether students were academically ready for college-level work.

Richard Duran, a UC Santa Barbara professor who sits on a California Department of Education technical advisory group on the exit exam, said it would be a mistake to eliminate the exit exam and rely instead on the Smarter Balanced tests to confer diplomas.

“The issue is what do we mean by being qualified to receive a high school diploma,” Duran said. “If that diploma is dependent on a test, and if that test were to be the (Smarter Balanced) test that could only be passed by being college ready, it would be a disaster. It would mean that a larger percentage of students would not receive the high school diploma.”

The exit exam, he said, was not intended to be a measure of college readiness.

“I don’t think that’s fair for students to have to be kind of caught in the middle there while our policy makers figure out how to help them,” said Jeannette LaFors, director of equity initiatives at The Education Trust-West.

The exit exam includes two portions – a math section that tests sixth- and seventh-grade material and Algebra I, and an English language arts portion that tests up to 10th grade material. Students have numerous chances to take the test, beginning in 10th grade.

Passage rates on the exam have grown incrementally each year, from a 90.4 percent passage rate in 2006 to the highest yet – 95.5 percent – for the class of 2013.

Hernandez and others give the test credit for improving academics and allowing for targeted instruction for struggling students, boosting graduation rates, reducing dropout rates and increasing the number of students who are taking algebra and advanced math classes.

Yet low-income students and English learners pass the test at lower rates than other students. Eighty-two percent of English learners and 93.5 percent of low-income students passed the exit exam in 2013, state data show, and racial gaps remain. African-American students posted a 92 percent passage rate in 2013, while the passage rate for Latino students was 94 percent. That’s compared with a 99 percent passage rates for white students and a 98 percent passage rate for Asian students.

Students with disabilities also struggle with the test, and a state law allows disabled students to receive a waiver from having to pass the exam to receive a diploma. Such students are encouraged to take the test, however.

Until the test’s fate is settled, “we continue to administer the (exit exam) as we have always done,” said the education department’s Hernandez. Current students have six more chances to take the test – still pegged to the state’s previous academic standards – before the school year ends.

It’s unclear how the mismatch between what’s being taught and what’s being tested might affect students.

On the one hand, the more rigorous standards associated with the Common Core could mean that students perform “as well or better” on the exit exam, said Jeannette LaFors, director of equity initiatives at The Education Trust-West, a nonprofit policy and educational equity advocacy group.

But “it could also be a real adaptation challenge for students,” she said, especially for students who require additional preparation and remediation classes to help them pass the exit exam.

“I don’t think that’s fair for students to have to be kind of caught in the middle there while our policy-makers figure out how to help them,” LaFors said.

“Whoever is in charge of that assessment plan,” she added, “I hope they are up at night.”

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