Editorial

Don't drop the high school exit exam

CA's high school exit exam is certainly due for revision, but the Legislature has a different, and worse, idea

California's high school exit exam is certainly due for revision. The test, which requires high school graduates to demonstrate reasonably proficient reading and math skills to graduate, is out of step with the newly adopted Common Core standards, and aligning it with the new curriculum is important. But eliminating it altogether would devalue diplomas and make new graduates less employable.

Yet the Legislature appears headed toward exactly that, which would be a major mistake. The exit exam was put in place in 2006 to counter grade inflation and social promotion, after too many students with high school diplomas were found to lack the basic skills needed for even modest jobs. Rising graduation rates are desirable, but only if they indicate a better-educated populace.

SB 172, which passed the Senate last week, would eliminate the test for at least three years while an advisory panel examines whether the state should have any kind of exit exam at all, and if so, what minimum standards it should set for high school graduation and how a new test would be designed.

These are all questions worth studying, but that shouldn't mean dropping the test in the interim — especially since the vague wording of the bill makes no commitment to reinstating the test after the three years are up in 2020 and fails to set a firm timeline for even making a decision.

Even if the panel recommended keeping the test, the state would lose valuable time. In fact, it would lose more than three years, because students don't just take the test once but are given many opportunities to pass it, starting in 10th grade. Even if a new test were to be put in place in 2020, it couldn't take effect right away because seniors wouldn't have had those previous chances.

Critics of the test point out that many of the students who pass it aren't prepared for college courses. That's right. The high school exit exam was never intended to measure college readiness; its purpose was to ensure that students were graduating with reasonable literacy and numerical skills learned in eighth- and 10th-grade courses. Not everyone is headed to college.

Independent reviews have consistently praised the state's exit exam. Pass rates have improved markedly since the requirement began, and now more than 95% of students pass by the end of senior year. The test prodded schools to give the intensive remediation that kept many students, especially disadvantaged teenagers in low-performing schools, from being able to progress in their studies. Despite predictions otherwise, graduation rates rose.

The existing exam might not measure everything it should. But until that's fixed, it's a lot better than measuring nothing.

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