Governor signs bill allowing diplomas for students who failed exit exam

October 7, 2015

Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a bill that will allow some students who failed the California High School Exit Exam to receive a high school diploma retroactively.

Senate Bill 172 will require school districts to award diplomas to students who met every other graduation target but failed the exit exam, which became a requirement starting with the class of 2006.

Brown, who signed the bill Wednesday, did not issue a comment.

Sen. Carol Liu, D­-La Cañada Flintridge, who authored the bill, initially introduced the bill because the exit exam is not aligned with new Common Core standards. It was later amended to remove the exit exam as a requirement for graduation for students who still hadn’t passed because they no longer had an opportunity to take the test.

The state is no longer administering the exit exam after its contract with the test’s publisher was set to expire this month. May was the last time the exam was given to students.

The law goes into effect Jan. 1. Students can contact their individual school districts to determine if they qualify.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, who sponsored the bill, said in a prepared statement that he applauded the governor for signing it.

“The high school exit exam is outdated and does not reflect California’s new, more rigorous academic standards that emphasize skills needed to succeed in college and careers in the 21st century,” he said. “I look forward to convening a task force of teachers, parents, students, and education leaders to find a more thoughtful approach to high school graduation requirements that better suits California’s modern education system and higher academic standards, and that supports our ongoing statewide efforts to achieve college and career readiness for all students.”

Previously, students in adult education programs were allowed to continue taking the exit exam three times a year, even years after they were supposed to graduate from high school.

About 249,000 students, or 6 percent of test­-takers, could not pass the test before the end of their senior year since it became a graduation requirement for the class of 2006. It’s unclear how many of these students did not receive diplomas only because they failed the test, and how many wouldn’t have graduated anyway because they also lacked enough credits, or did not meet grade requirements.

The new law also calls for the state to suspend the exit exam in the 2015-16, 2016­-17 and 2017­-18 school years and to eliminate it as a graduation requirement during that time. Meanwhile, lawmakers and educators will determine if the state should create a new version of the test that’s aligned with the Common Core State Standards, or eliminate it altogether as a graduation requirement in the future.

Nearly 5 million students have taken the test, aimed at ensuring students graduate from high school with basic skills in math and English. The math portion is based on 6th­- and 7th-­grade math standards, along with some Algebra I questions. The English section is based on 8th-­, 9th-­ and 10th­-grade standards.

Students who failed the exit exam but met all other graduation requirements were often awarded certificates of achievement, which are diploma-like documents. The students were encouraged to enroll in community colleges, which do not require diplomas for admission, or to work toward a GED diploma equivalency certificate.

Still, many were prevented from applying to four­-year colleges, vocational training programs, military service or for jobs that required a high school diploma.

Telesis Radford, who received a certificate of completion from Santa Rosa High after missing the score needed to pass the exit exam by 2 points, squealed with joy when told in a phone interview Wednesday that the governor had signed the bill.

“My reaction is just pure joy and happiness,” she said. “I will be able to take the phlebotomy course that I want to take and get the job I want to get afterward. I’ll be living my dream now.”

Veronica Steele, a 27­-year­-old who received a certificate of completion from Rio Linda High, which is near Sacramento, said she was also excited after learning she will now be able to get her diploma and pursue a career as a veterinary technician. Failing the exam and not graduating, she said, negatively affected her.

“It shot my confidence,” she said. “I lost complete self esteem because of that test and now that I’m going to get my diploma, it feels like a weight’s being lifted off my shoulder.”

Supporters of the exit exam have said it raised the bar for graduation by encouraging students to work harder and pressured schools to increase their efforts to close the achievement gap.

Retired State Superintendent of Public Instruction and former senator Jack O’Connell, who authored the original bill that created the exam, said he was pleased the governor signed SB 172.

“Our high school exit exam was always designed to be a bridge to the next set of new state standards,” he said. “I’m a firm believer in accountability. I do think we’ll have another type of accountability system as a capstone to measure students’ progress. But the exit exam as we knew it was not aligned to the new standards and that was a problem.”

When the exit exam bill was originally passed, it was widely supported by the business community.

“With the CAHSEE in place, California’s successful high school graduates will benefit the state and national economies,” Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce said in 2006, after state courts upheld the test. “The CAHSEE is a mechanism that ensures graduating high school seniors obtain the requisite knowledge and skills needed to succeed and graduate from high school.”

Some groups advocating for low­-income and minority students supported the concept of a minimum level of achievement for a high school diploma, while calling for more resources for low­-income districts and fairer alternatives to a single test score. In 2007, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed Assembly Bill 1379, which called for studying other options.

But more recently, some opponents of the exam have argued that it has discouraged some students from staying in school and that it disproportionately punished low-­income children and English learners who were unable to pass the test. Several Republicans voted against SB 172, saying they believe the state should continue to require students to demonstrate that they have acquired basic skills and knowledge before graduation.

Rep. Bob Huff, R-San Dimas, said he was disappointed that the governor signed the bill and fears high school students may not be required to pass another such exam for years.

“It’s another step away from accountability,” he said. “Everybody worked hard and we have a pretty high graduation rate … We should have had another time certain (for a new test) so we don’t go down the road without accountability.”

Staff writer John Fensterwald contributed to this report.

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