Updated: October 14, 2015.
California’s education system is transforming in positive ways. Replacing the high school exit exam with more modern and meaningful measures is a critical part of that work.
Governor Jerry Brown recently signed Senate Bill 172 into law, suspending the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) as a requirement for high school graduation for the next three years. It also requires school districts to grant diplomas to students who in the past were denied one solely because they did not pass the exam. I was proud to sponsor this bill, and I deeply appreciate state Senator Carol Liu, D-Pasadena, for bringing forward this urgently needed legislation.
The state Legislature created the exit exam requirement in 1999, and schools began using the test a few years later. Since then, however, the world – and California’s education system – have changed dramatically.
We have instituted new, more rigorous state academic standards. We have launched a more sophisticated assessment of student progress using online, computer-adaptive tests. And, we are moving toward a more comprehensive evaluation of schools that uses multiple measures instead of a single test score.
The current version of the exit exam was always meant to be temporary, according to the author of the legislation establishing it. Eliminating the old high school exit exam provides a great opportunity to develop a more effective approach to supporting our students. We must make sure that our high school graduates are ready for college and careers in the 21st century.
Students need a variety of skills to succeed in today’s economy. Our methods of gauging their progress should incorporate multiple measures. SB 172 requires me to convene a task force of teachers, parents, students, administrators and others to report back on new high school graduation requirements.
I look forward to exploring the options. One possibility is a senior or “capstone” project, in which students demonstrate what they have learned in an oral report, a paper or an exhibition. Another option is integrating community service into this work, so that our students learn “civics in action.”
In addition, a student could demonstrate career readiness by completing an internship at a local company, government agency, or nonprofit, and then producing a report about a potential career pathway. And a district may choose some combination of these approaches, customized to local conditions.
The search for a new high school graduation requirement is similar to our work developing a new accountability system. In both cases, we’re reinvigorating our schools by replacing 20th-century models with more thoughtful, contemporary 21st-century approaches.
As for the accountability system, the previously used Academic Performance Index has been suspended, and I have convened a task force to make recommendations for a new accountability system. The Accountability and Continuous Improvement Task Force is co-chaired by Wes Smith of the Association of California School Administrators and Eric Heins of the California Teachers Association.
The task force will study the issue and make recommendations early next year. Any new system should promote continuous improvement and better identify the needs of schools so they can receive the resources they need to improve.
On Sept. 9, the state released results of the new, online Smarter Balanced assessments in English and math. Certainly, those results will be part of any new accountability system, but the task force will consider other areas as well, including graduation rates, school attendance, chronic absenteeism, career readiness and school climate.
These are exciting times in California education. We continue to innovate and evolve. Finding new, more dynamic approaches to the high school exit exam and school accountability are two key components of transforming our schools and ensuring California’s bright future.
Tom Torlakson is the state superintendent of public instruction.
Editor’s Note: The updated version of this commentary clarifies that SB 172 suspends the CAHSEE for the next three years, but does not eliminate it permanently.
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