NEARLY 100,000 high school seniors -- about one in eight -- have flunked the California high school exit exam. Half of all students who speak English as a second language have not passed. Nor have two-thirds of special education students, though a deal to exempt seniors with learning disabilities this year is moving through the Legislature. Lawsuits challenging the legitimacy and fairness of the exam have been filed.
In response, state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell says there's no practical alternative to the exit exam and that the test is "the only way" to ensure that graduates possess the English and math skills they will need as adults.
Yet the California high school exit exam has two fundamental problems that compromise the value of the diploma students earn by passing it.
First, the test creates an "all-or-nothing" diploma -- the answer to a single question can determine if a student graduates -- that provides little information about students' competencies. This lack of information is not a problem for college-bound students because colleges evaluate applicants in more than one way.
But for students seeking jobs, the exit-exam diploma tells prospective employers little about them. It may even confuse employers, who have to differentiate it from diplomas with different requirements. For example, California private schools do not require their students to pass the exit exam to get their diplomas.
Second, the state exit exam ignores "noncognitive" social skills -- motivation, tenacity, trustworthiness, perseverance, etc. These are difficult to measure but highly valued by employers. Research studies show that 70% to 80% of a high school diploma's market value -- measured by earnings differences between graduates and dropouts -- can be attributed to these skills.
The solution to the exam-generated all-or-nothing diploma is a differentiated diploma, one that would recognize both the cognitive and noncognitive skills that California students acquire in high school. The traditional high school diploma would recognize social skills and require students to pass prescribed courses. Proficiency scores on a battery of national tests or equivalent indicators would measure cognitive skills.
Using national exams or equivalent indicators would add market value to California's high school diploma. The content of state exams varies from state to state, limiting their usefulness to employers.
National exams -- Advanced Placement tests and the SAT -- are based on national standards. As such, employers can easily judge students' cognitive skills from different years, different states and from private and public schools, just as universities do.
National exams also test on more subjects than most state tests, thus providing information on a wider array of cognitive skills.
Finally, equivalent indicators -- portfolios of student work, for example -- would enable students who don't do well on traditional tests (non-English-speaking and disabled students) to demonstrate their cognitive skills in other ways.
Many states have awarded differentiated diplomas. California already has such a system -- the Golden State Diploma -- that recognizes high school coursework and proficiency scores on subject matter tests. But the diploma has never been advertised or widely used, so it has little market value. Replacing the California high school exit exam with a system that produced a differentiated high school diploma would help employers and provide a fair hurdle to students.