Op-Ed

Goodbye and good riddance to California's high school exit exam

The California high school exit exam is dead. The short and purposeless life of the exam began in 2001 when it was first administered to ninth-grade volunteers. It ended last week when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that not only suspended the test but also nullified the results for anybody who had finished high school but failed to pass it.

Once hailed as a meaningful way to raise academic standards, the exam left the world without a trace, erased like the errant smudge of a No. 2 pencil.

The exam is preceded to the grave by a century's worth of forgotten and abandoned education initiatives that headline-seeking politicians once promised were going to make our schools great again. (Remember class size reduction? Remember how every kid in Los Angeles was supposed to get an iPad?) It is survived by zombie ideas that refuse to die despite overwhelming evidence that they should. (Can we forget about using standardized tests to evaluate teachers?)

I admit I don't mourn the test's passing, but I can't help but feel angry about the way it ended.

I don't mourn it because it was a lame test to begin with. All those countries that whip us on international assessments have a rigorous end-of-high-school test. Here in California, we ignored the "rigor" part, aligning our test to eighth-grade math and 10th-grade English. Students who failed the first try in 10th grade could take the test six more times in high school, and in recent years the pass rate for all seniors edged above 95%.

In this land of opportunity, students who met all other graduation requirements could keep taking the test years after high school; even twentysomethings could have another go at the math we expect 13-year-olds to understand. But for some students, infinite second chances weren't enough.

It was only fair, argued the authors of the test-kill bill, to give diplomas to the more than 30,000 former students who needed only to pass the exam.

Well, fair is fair. So give them diplomas. Give them all trophies too. Perhaps we should also give diplomas to the dropouts who quit school because they figured they had no chance of passing the exam? This is America, after all.

But it's not the granting of diplomas to students who can't do eighth-grade math that bothers me. It's what the test and its demise represent.

Any teacher who has been in the classroom for more than a few years has seen costly education initiatives promoted and then dropped when they didn't deliver promised results. We've all been in crowded auditoriums where expensive consultants repackaged common sense about student success as bold new insight.

A key survival skill for teachers is learning to nod politely and say what a great idea that is, and then to go back into classroom and do the very best that we can for our students.

But it was hard to ignore the high school exit exam. Every year, my colleagues who taught 10th grade had to shape their lessons to fit that ridiculous test. At my daughter's school, ninth-graders were supposed to come for a practice exam while sophomores did the real thing. After years of insisting that what matters in school is learning, not grades and tests scores, I told her she could stay home those mornings.

The test informed our curriculum and our school rankings. Now it's gone. But that's not the end of the story. State education officials are now considering whether to create a new exit exam aligned to Common Core standards. If they go ahead, I want to suggest a couple of questions for Exit Exam 2.0:

1. Why should anybody take this test seriously after the state retroactively gave everybody a pass on the last one?

2. Who benefited most from the untold millions the state spent to purchase and administer the old exit exam?

Question 1 is rhetorical. Question 2 has a painfully obvious solution, but just in case your high school was teaching test prep instead of logical thinking, the answer is the testing company.

For full credit, the test taker should also note that nearly every education reform in recent memory has started out or ended up as a way to transfer money intended for public education into the pockets of corporations and consultants.

I can't change the answers, but I hope that our esteemed education leaders will understand why we lowly classroom teachers don't get excited about the next big thing that is really going to make a difference this time.

And as long as the state is so good at throwing away money, it could at least buy us straight-face masks to wear when we tell our students next spring to try hard on the new-and-improved exam because it really matters, kids.

Michael Mahoney is a high school English and journalism teacher who lives in Sacramento.

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