Bill calls for a time out on the high school exit exam

February 10, 2015

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

The California High School Exit Exam would be suspended for several years and its role would be re-examined under a bill introduced last week by the chair of the Senate Education Committee.

Senate Bill 172 by Carol Liu, D-La Cañada-Flintridge, calls for suspending the test in the 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years and eliminating it as a graduation requirement during that time.

In the interim, the state Superintendent of Schools would be required to convene an advisory panel to study whether to continue the exit exam, and if not, what should replace it.

The exit exam “is no longer relevant,” Liu said, noting the state’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards in math and English.

“The test that has been administered doesn’t test the curriculum that’s being taught, so it’s just rather common sense that we should either fix the test or develop another instrument,” she said.

Since 2006, all California seniors have been required to pass the exit exam to qualify for a diploma. The two-part test was seen as a measure of whether students met basic proficiency standards in math and English.

The exit exam sets a “very low bar” for what students should be expected to know to succeed after high school graduation, said Kenneth Young, Riverside County superintendent of schools.

The bill comes as California education officials are discussing revising the so-called “accountability system” by which schools are evaluated. Schools are also transitioning to the Common Core standards, which include a battery of new standardized tests, called the Smarter Balanced Assessments.

Most aspects of the state’s standardized testing program were put on hold during the transition to the new assessments, but the exit exam remained in place as a graduation requirement. The exam is not aligned to the Common Core, but is built on the previous state standards. This year’s seniors are still required to pass the exam to graduate, in addition to completing other mandated coursework.

Liu’s bill does not discuss what might replace the exit exam. Those details would be left up to the advisory committee, which would include school administrators, teachers and parents, and testing experts, especially those with expertise in assessments for English learners and disabled students.

Credit: Lillian Mongeau/EdSource Today

Carol Liu

In a January 2013 report, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson recommended a number of alternatives to the exam. Those alternatives include using the results of the 11th grade Smarter Balanced Assessments; using results of other exams, such as the SAT, ACT or Advanced Placement tests, as a “proxy” for the exit exam; or using course completion in high school as a measure of proficiency.

Liu sponsored the bill after ongoing discussions with the California Department of Education, and she “continues to work closely with the department on this issue,” said Robert Oakes, Liu’s legislative director.

An independent evaluator that reviews the exit exam for the Department of Education said the test has been associated with positive outcomes. The evaluator, the Human Resources Research Organization, recommended continuing “with an exit exam of some sort.”

“Over fifteen years, we have seen (exit exam) test scores rise, overall and for demographic groups defined by race/ethnicity and economic status,” said the group’s 2014 evaluation report. “Graduation rates climbed, dropout rates declined, and successful participation in college entrance exams and Advanced Placement exams rose.”

Passage rates have risen steadily since the exam was introduced, from a 90.4 percent passage rate in 2006 to 95.5 percent in 2014. Students have numerous chances to pass the test, beginning in 10th grade.

Other research, however, has said that exit exams have had little value in improving student achievement, and in fact, had a negative impact on students who are academically at-risk, especially minority students.

The time has come to re-examine the test, said Kenneth Young, Riverside County Superintendent of Schools and co-chair of a state advisory committee that has been looking at ways to reform the accountability system that measures how well schools are serving students.

The exit exam sets a “very low bar” for what students should be expected to know to succeed after high school graduation, he said. The math section of the exam covers 6th- and 7th-grade material and Algebra I, while the English portion tests up to 10th grade material.

“I think what happens is students pass the exit exam and they think they can go out and find a decent job,” Young said. “They’re competing against people who have college degrees for those jobs you used to be able to get with a high school diploma.”

Further, any reform of the state accountability system could potentially render the exit exam unnecessary, Young said.

“The new accountability system may have expectations for students to meet in order to complete high school that would negate the need to have a separate way of measuring that,” he said.

“The bill has a lot of benefits to it,” Young said, “and I think this is an appropriate time to be looking at taking action like this.”

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