Without an exit exam, we fail

RICHARD J. RIORDAN is the former mayor of Los Angeles and the former state secretary of education.

IN HIS EYE-OPENING book, “The World Is Flat,” New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman warns that the United States is in a “quiet crisis” and that “we should be embarking on an all-hands-on-deck, no-holds-barred, no-budget-too-large crash program for science and engineering education immediately.” If we don’t, Friedman points out, our society will not be able to compete with such countries as India and China in today’s unprecedented open market. Millions of American jobs could be at risk.

This is the crucial context of the California high school exit exam. Right now, in order to graduate, seniors in the state need to pass a test -- a test, mind you, that they can take as many as six times before the end of senior year. This exam only assesses whether students have attained 8th-grade math levels and 10th-grade English skills. That’s correct; students only need to demonstrate middle school math skills to pass a high school exit exam. And we hope to prepare our next generation for the fierce global job competition ahead?

What’s more disconcerting is that this week, California’s 1st District Court of Appeal will hear arguments for eliminating the exit exam as a graduation requirement for the class of 2006.

In other words, the appellate court will decide whether schools should hand out diplomas to students who have repeatedly failed to demonstrate 8th-grade math skills and 10th-grade reading skills. Could you imagine a judge deciding to accept such a loose diploma-granting policy? A policy in which educators knowingly send students into the workforce or to college lacking basic skills, thereby setting them up for failure?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination. When the court case was first heard 2 1/2 months ago, an Alameda County Superior Court judge made this exact decision, lifting the exit exam requirement. Luckily, the decision was appealed and sent to the California Supreme Court, which reinstated the test less than two weeks later, granting a stay until the appellate court could hear arguments this week.


I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this case. In the interest of our children’s futures, the California high school exit exam must be upheld.

Our schools must be held accountable for educating their students. It is completely unacceptable to let schools get away with graduating students who lack basic academic skills.

An exit exam compels principals and teachers to continue working with students until they are truly prepared for their next stage of life. Seniors who have received an inadequate education deserve to stay in high school another year, not to be “pushed out” under the guise of “graduating.” No more social promotion. Students deserve to get the help they need.

To make this happen, there must be a bar by which students’ skills can be measured. As the saying goes, “people rise to the expectations set for them.” Take away the expectation, and you take away the incentive to meet it. So if you take away the exit exam, you take away the means by which we can measure schools’ performances. If we cannot identify the cracks in the system, those cracks will never get fixed.

This is one of the most urgent public policy problems facing us. Job competition today looks nothing like it did a decade ago. With the advances of technology and ease of interconnectivity among countries, it has become increasingly possible for foreigners to perform remote “knowledge work” for U.S. companies. Why give these companies an extra reason to hire abroad?

Removing the exam requirement is like stamping a sign on every California high school graduate’s forehead that reads, “Hire me. Take a risk. I may or may not be able to do 8th-grade math.”

As soon as the appeals court arguments begin, we will once again see editorials about the pros and cons of the exam. Some will say the exam unfairly affects low-income students and English-language learners, and thus should be lifted. To that, I rebut: If low-income students and English-language learners are disproportionately failing the test, this tells us something important -- we need to do a better job teaching these students. Deploy more resources. Improve instructional strategies. Replace incompetent faculty. But do not punish the students by sending them out ill-equipped into the world. Take responsibility. Educate them.

As Friedman advises, in this new, flat world, “we Americans will have to work harder, run faster and become smarter to get our share.” Let’s hope the exit exam stays intact, or else our children’s share will significantly diminish. And the sad thing is they won’t even be able to do the math to determine by how much.