Archived: Point/Counterpoint: California High School Exit Exam


Since 2006, all California high school students have been required to pass the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) in order graduate and receive their diplomas. But with schools facing drastic budget cuts, the state legislature is proposing a four-year moratorium on the exam because of the decreased resources going to schools and students. The following two opinions argue opposing views on the proposed suspension of CAHSEE and the impacts it would have on students and on California’s economic development. Speaker of the Assembly Karen Bass supports the moratorium, while Kirk Clark, executive director of California Business for Education Excellence, thinks suspending CAHSEE would shortchange students and the state.

Canceling Exit Exam Cheats Students—and California

By Kirk M. Clark

Using the false argument of cost savings to the state, the legislative budget conference committee took actions on June 16 that would suspend the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) as a graduation requirement. If implemented, this action would ultimately hurt thousands of students across California as they are left unprepared for the workplace and the future that awaits them.

The CAHSEE, which was authorized by Senate Bill 2 in 1999 as part of the state’s public school accountability program, made passing the CAHSEE a requirement for students to graduate from high school. The exam is divided into two sections: language arts (reading and writing) and mathematics. Based on the state’s Academic Content Standards, passing CAHSEE requires 10th grade language skills and mathematics aptitude through Algebra I (now an 8th grade requirement). Sophomores who take the test have eight opportunities to pass both sections; if they pass one section, they do not have to take that section again.

The Legislature’s proposal to suspend CAHSEE passage as a graduation requirement sends the absolute wrong message to students and undercuts the extraordinary efforts currently underway across the state to ensure students have minimum math and reading proficiency.

Those extraordinary efforts have helped thousands of students to successfully master the content.

Take for example the successes we have witnessed with the class of 2008. When first administered in 2006, only 65 percent of the students passed the exit exam; by 2008, the passage rate of that same cohort had increased to 90 percent. And for English language learners, the passage rate went from 27 percent to 72 percent. For Latino students, it went from 52 percent to 85 percent. For African Americans, the passing rate went from 46 to 80 percent.

While there is still plenty of room for improvement in these numbers, for those students who received the remedial education necessary to pass the exam, the CAHSEE has served to focus attention and resources on students who are struggling. For these students, what they know is that there are adults around them who care about their success and who are going to take whatever steps ARE necessary to ensure they succeed.

With the demand growing for more high-skilled workers in California, the CAHSEE ensures that high school graduates have the minimum skills necessary to become productive participants in the workforce. We need to be preparing more students for the rigor and skills necessary to be successful in college, and the action by the Legislature takes us in the absolute wrong direction. What is worse, students who are currently receiving intensive remediation will be left behind, as schools no longer held accountable for their students’ success turn their attention elsewhere.

According to data from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card, California students perform poorly compared to other states. On average, they are one year of learning behind. Compared to the higher performing states, such as Massachusetts and Minnesota, they are two to three years of learning behind. The way to close this achievement gap is not to abandon accountability tools and interventions that have proven successful, but to call for higher expectations and continue to improve and support our teachers’ ability to get all students to grade-level proficiency on the state’s standards.

The actions of the Legislature also fly in the face of public opinion. According to a recent Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) survey, 69 percent of all adults and 74 percent of public school parents support passage of the exam as a requirement to graduate from high school. Among Latinos, 80 percent support the requirement.

While the economic crisis is forcing cuts in education so deep as to cause the first year-to-year reduction in per pupil expenditures since the Great Depression, California should not use this as an excuse to go back to the days of giving a diploma to students who can’t read and do basic math. Instead, we should harness the power of those successful schools and school districts to give them the flexibility to expend their resources where they are needed most and to ensure that students receive the education they will need to be successful and productive members of the workplace and the future that awaits them.

Kirk M. Clark is the executive director of California Business for Education Excellence a nonprofit organization whose mission is to raise student academic achievement and close the achievement gap in California’s public schools. For more information about CBEE please visit www.cbee.or.

A Time-Out for California’s High School Exit Exam

By Assembly Speaker Karen Bass

As part of its comprehensive package of budget-related spending cuts, revenue increases, and policy reforms the California Legislature proposes suspending the requirement that students pass the California High School Exits Exam (CAHSEE) to receive a diploma.
Although the CAHSEE law was enacted a decade ago, it has been fraught with delays and litigation and has only been in effect for four graduating classes. We propose a four-year moratorium.

Not surprisingly, the plan has been met with cries of outrage from certain quarters. But suspending the exam makes good sense in a budget crisis and as good educational policy.
First, consider our budget. California is facing an economic and budget crisis of epic proportions. We are watching the systematic dismantling of government in California.

Transportation, public safety, environmental protection, state parks, colleges and universities are all experiencing unprecedented cuts. The governor has even proposed eliminating key elements of the health and social service safety net for children, the poor, the elderly, and the disabled.

Public education, too, is facing countless billions of dollars in cuts. Fiscal years 2008-09 and 2009-10 will see the largest disinvestment in public education since the Great Depression: Tens of thousands of teachers are slated for layoff. School support staff are being fired. Remedial programs are being curtailed. The instructional year is being shortened. Class sizes are being increased all over the state.

How can we pull the financial rug out from under our students, our teachers, and our public schools and still ask them to achieve the same outcomes? We clearly can’t. Dramatic funding cuts have real consequences.

But the budget situation is only a part of the rationale for suspending the exam. Two months ago, Sean Reardon of Stanford University released findings of his research on CAHSEE. The results were disturbing, but also compelling and unassailable: CAHSEE has had a dramatic negative effect on the graduation rates of girls and on students of color. Graduation rates for girls in the lowest achievement quartile are 19 percent lower than before the exit exam was instituted; for students of color in the lowest achievement quartile, graduation rates are 15-19 percent lower. These effects are unrelated to school quality.

And finally, contrary to widespread assertions about exit exams, CAHSEE appears to have no positive effects — and may have negative effects — on student achievement.

The final paragraph of the study captures the implications of these findings much more eloquently than I could hope to:

“This study provides no evidence that the CAHSEE exam policy as currently implemented has any benefits for students. It does not serve students well, and appears to have sharply inequitable effects. Moreover, California, like the twenty-plus other states that have exit exam policies, spends millions of dollars and a considerable amount of instructional time on exit exam test preparation, administration, and remediation. Our analysis suggests that, to date, this has been neither money nor time well spent.”

The research is clear. CAHSEE, at least in its current form, is a failed experiment. Our students and our schools need at least a hiatus in its implementation to determine whether, or in what form, this test should continue in existence.

Karen Bass is (D-Los Angeles) is Speaker of Assembly.

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1 Comment

  1. Stopping CAHSEE for budget purposes is a red herring to the real reason why some groups want it ended. Truth is the CTA wants the CAHSEE ended because the exam brings a measure of accountability to teachers as a whole. I see no mention above about the savings related to ending CAHSEE… It is $8 million per year. A proverbial drop in the bucket given the dollars spent on education in this state. Don’t be fooled folks.

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