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State schools chief flunks on exit exam

 State schools chief flunks on exit exam
State schools chief Tom Torlakson waits backstage before speaking at the California Democratic Convention on March 8, 2014. (Los Angeles Times)

State schools chief Tom Torlakson is bemoaning an unfair situation that threatens the diplomas of thousands of students. He's pledged to do something about it. What the superintendent of public instruction hasn't done is acknowledge his own culpability in creating it in the first place.

At risk are 5,000 students who recently finished their senior years but who have not yet passed the high school exit exam, which is intended to ensure that students don't get diplomas unless they have mastered the rudiments of English and math. Torlakson canceled this summer's test. As a result, these students cannot apply for jobs requiring a diploma; others, who have already been admitted to college, could see those admissions threatened.

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SB 172 would solve the short-term problem by retroactively excusing the class of 2015 from the test. But it's a bad bill that threatens the entire future of the exam.

The current exit exam has to go because it's out of step with the new curriculum based on Common Core, Torlakson explains. But whose fault is that? It's not as though everyone didn't know years ago that Common Core was coming. Why wasn't the exit exam updated in tandem with this curriculum change?

The bill calls for a three-year hiatus from the test while a panel studies its future. Not only is that unnecessarily long, but the bill makes no commitments about what happens after that. Under the bill, there might be no requirement at all that high school graduates show mastery of basic skills, which would practically ensure a return to the days of social promotion and meaningless diplomas.

Torlakson's decision to cancel this summer's testing (the test is first given in sophomore year, but those who fail are given many additional chances) puts significant pressure on the Legislature to pass SB 172 swiftly in order to protect the 5,000 students. Was this politically motivated or simple ineptitude? Neither is acceptable.

Rather than rushing to pass SB 172, legislators are wisely amending another education bill, to be considered Thursday, to award these students their diplomas without the exit exam. It's a less-than-perfect solution — three-fourths of summer test-takers typically flunk the test, which means schools will be awarding diplomas to students who lack the requisite skills. But it's probably the only acceptable step right now; this situation isn't the students' fault. Then the Legislature should swiftly kill SB 172 and instead propose a more sensible plan, requiring an updated exit exam that doesn't take years to develop.

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