Scores on exit exam hold steady

September 19, 2014

The latest results of the California High School Exit Exam echoed a similar refrain from past years, with the number of seniors passing the test holding steady year-over-year but showing gains in the number of students who pass in their sophomore year.

About 95.5 percent of the class of 2014 passed the exit exam, matching the record-high passage rate set by the class of 2013, according to preliminary results released Friday by the California Department of Education.

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Seventy-five percent of those students passed on their first try in their sophomore year – the first year students are eligible to take the exit exam, the numbers show. That’s a 1 percent increase over the number of students from the class of 2013 who passed the test in 10th grade.

The number of students who pass in their sophomore year has climbed since the test was first required in 2006, when only 64 percent of students passed in 10th grade and 90 percent had passed by their senior year.

“Until we shift what we’re measuring to align with what we’re teaching, I don’t know that we can expect to see much more progress,” said Carrie Hahnel, director of research and policy analysis at The Education Trust West.

All California students are required to pass the exit exam in order to receive diplomas. The test is broken into two sections, a math portion that tests sixth- and seventh-grade material and some Algebra I, and an English language arts section that tests up to 10th grade material. Students must pass both sections in order to qualify for a diploma.

Passage rates for African-American, Latino and low-income students continue to lag behind those of white and Asian students, the numbers show, although the gap has narrowed since 2006. About 92 percent of African-American students in the class of 2014 passed the exit exam, up only 0.4 percentage points from the class of 2013. The passage rate among low-income student and Latinos was about 94 percent. In 2006, 84 percent of African-American students and 86 percent of low-income and Latino students passed the exit exam.

Carrie Hahnel, director of research and policy analysis at The Education Trust West, a nonprofit educational equity advocacy group, said the gains among black, Latino and low-income students are “reassuring,” but not surprising, given those groups “had more room to grow” from when the test was first administered.

Of more concern, Hahnel said, are the consistently low results posted by English learner students.

About 81 percent of English learners in the class of 2014 passed the test, a decrease from the number who passed the previous year and up only about 5 percentage points from 2006.

“Twenty percent of English learners are not, in theory, able to receive a diploma,” Hahnel said. “There are issues here. The test is not offered in their primary language, we’re not looking at how long students have been in the U.S. It raises questions about whether we’re offering every opportunity for students to demonstrate proficiency in basic skills and offering every opportunity to graduate from high school.”

The total number of students in the class of 2014 who passed the exit exam was 417,960, according to the department of education, while 19,679 students did not pass. Past research by the department has shown that the majority of students who do not pass the exam, and therefore don’t qualify for diplomas, are also missing credits required for graduation, a department spokeswoman said.

While the exit exam remains in place as a requirement for graduating seniors, its fate is unclear as the state transitions to a new testing system aligned to a the Common Core State Standards now being taught in California schools. Most other standardized testing has been placed on hold as the state transitions to new Smarter Balanced assessments aligned to the Common Core.

The high-stakes exit exam, however, remains pegged to the previous state standards, and it’s unclear how the mismatch is affecting student performance.

“We’ve reached this place on the (exit exam) where scores are quite high,” Hahnel said, noting a “ceiling effect” on student exam scores over time.

“Until we shift what we’re measuring to align with what we’re teaching,” she added, “I don’t know that we can expect to see much more progress.”

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