Current high school exit exam was always supposed to be temporary

August 26, 2015

Jack O'Connell

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Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 725 by Senator Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, on Wednesday, a bill that was moved quickly through the Legislature to allow students in the Class of 2015 to receive high school diplomas without passing the California High School Exit Exam, or CAHSEE.

I completely support this action – the exit exam was not administered in July and a number of students who had completed all other graduation requirements and planned to retake the exam were deprived of that opportunity. Aside from the broader policy debates about the merits of an exit exam, it is important for all of us to focus first on the needs of our students and make sure they are treated fairly. This is particularly true when their opportunities to go to college or find a good job are at stake.

I was the author of SB2-X1 (1999), the legislation that created the high school exit exam, and I still think the bill was a good idea at that time. The original exit exam was designed to ensure that students graduate with the basic knowledge and skills they need in the workplace and in life, and to shine a light on those students who are struggling. Requiring passage of the exit exam also helped to lower the achievement gap by incentivizing high schools to focus on students who were in danger of not mastering the skills measured by the exit exam. The legislation, and subsequent actions taken when I served as State Superintendent of Public Instruction, ensured that students who were struggling to pass the exam would be offered additional instruction and multiple opportunities to succeed.

But this specific exit exam was always meant to be temporary. This exam, covering reading, writing and mathematics, has been in place as a condition of receipt of a high school diploma since 2006. We were transitioning to new state academic standards, and we knew those standards would change again in the future. I’ve always believed that our assessment and accountability systems need to be coherent and avoid duplicative and unnecessary testing, and the current version of the high school exit exam is neither aligned to our standards nor essential to the development of our new accountability system.

I still believe we need to ensure that all of our students graduate high school with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful. Whether or not an exit exam should be part of our evolving assessment and accountability systems is worthy of debate. But for today, we cannot let the exit exam operate as an obstacle to students who have earned the right to continue their paths to college or careers. I applaud the quick action of the Legislature and governor to resolve this problem.


Jack O’Connell was California’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction from 2003 to 2011 and is a partner in Capitol Advisors in Sacramento. 

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