During the last week of February I took the California state bar exam. This is a three-day exam that would-be attorneys must pass before they can practice law in California. Although my final view of the test will depend largely on my results, due in May, I can comment on the angst felt by high school students facing the new state exit exam.
It is interesting to note that the concerns and complaints I heard during my time in law school are very much like those expressed by the high school students who must pass this exam to graduate: "I'm a bad test taker"; "We haven't been taught the material"; "The weight of the exam is affecting my performance."
Since my first year in law school, fellow students talked about "the bar" as if it were a final arbiter that propelled them to success as licensed attorneys or flung them into a tailspin as second- or third-time bar exam takers. With a total of 14 subjects in six one-hour written exams, a six-hour multiple-choice question session and two three-hour performance exams, the bar is not an easy test. But it is our option as law school graduates to undertake the challenge. We've already met the academic requirements in law school.
Contrast this with the demands imposed on a high school student who must pass the exit exam just to receive a diploma.
When an individual graduates from an accredited law school, it may be presumed that he or she has taken the required courses, maintained good academic standing and met the state's requirements for a legal education. The education itself is valuable, but the law degree's value is limited only by what the student chooses to do with it. Sometimes that does not require taking the bar exam at all.
But a student who has enrolled in an accredited high school in the state and has passed the requisite courses meeting the district's requirements for graduation must submit to an exit exam to determine the value of the diploma. Shouldn't the emphasis on value be on the education itself?
As a remedial tool, the exam could be used to determine where improvements and changes should be made in the state's curriculum. Instead, it seems more of a punitive measure that sidesteps the greater problems within the educational system. Those problems include social promotion, overcrowded schools, incomplete construction projects and underpaid teachers. At the same time, the test increases the pressure on those who have no control over such problems.
Gov. Gray Davis proposed the exit exam as part of his education program. But political goals based on educational pursuits will always benefit the former at the expense of the latter. There is no doubt that students have a responsibility to their education for themselves and for society. But if the state's educational system is to be revitalized, its use as a political tool must end or the eventual costs will include more than just dollars and cents.
Though the bar exam may wash out a few potentially good attorneys, the state exit exam has the potential of wiping out the hopes and dreams of young Californians throughout the state. And for that we may all feel angst.