Postponing Exit Exams Isn’t the Right Answer

Share via
Harvey Rich is a professor of sociology at CSU Northridge.

It is disappointing to see the California Legislature attempt to hide from controversy by asking for a two-year postponement of the high school exit exams.

Sure, California needs to do more homework on the ramifications of the exit exam and on the causes of the high failure rates. All new programs need monitoring, assessment and tuning.

However, repeated tries at this exam don’t seem to improve the passage rate. Schools and students have had two years to accommodate themselves and learn the material.


New students in the pipeline will also have two years to learn the material. Will they be any more successful? Probably not by much. What will happen then?

Will the exams be canceled permanently, as was done for the program to eliminate social promotion in K-12? If so, what message will we be sending our colleges and businesses about the knowledge and critical thinking skills of our high schools graduates, and how seriously will educators and students take any future efforts at school reform?

As a professor in the California State University system for 31 years, I have lived through numerous attempts at reform. With all the programs and efforts that have come and gone, are students today better prepared in writing and math? It is a fairly universal feeling of faculty whom I know and who have been at the CSU for a while that students are less prepared than ever.

To personalize this, I have taught the basic upper-division statistics class to sociology majors for many years. I have stopped teaching this course recently because the general math and reasoning abilities of the students are at such a low level that it has become a rather unpleasant experience.

About 50% of my classes weren’t able to perform simple arithmetic operations at the beginning of the semester. How could I possibly teach principles involving these concepts when I would have to spend considerable time answering questions such as why 0.10 equals 10%, or how to plot a simple line on a graph.

You may not buy the argument that in general adults in their personal lives and in their jobs need to know how to do simple percentages in order to understand the continual stream of complex information they will be receiving about mortgage rates, savings account and the like. You may also not agree that they should be able to write a basic report to convey information clearly. Nonetheless, it should be obvious that entrance into college requires students to be able to perform at a higher level than they are presently doing. If we don’t require this from our students, a college degree from most public universities will lose its meaning.


A high school exit exam may not be the answer to the complex question of why students are performing below high school level, but early abandonment of the concept for political reasons only increases cynicism about the future abilities of our high school graduates.

We need to keep in mind that the California State University must maintain access by all groups, but at the same time standards befitting a college education must be maintained. To do this requires that our incoming students be prepared to do college-level work.