The single easiest bill for California legislators to pass this year probably was Senate Bill 725, giving about 5,000 high school students the ability to graduate without taking the state’s high school exit exam, which suddenly became unavailable when they tried to take it in July.
But then the lawmakers went much further and, with approval from the quixotic Gov. Jerry Brown, effectively nullified everything the exit exam had accomplished since 2006.
Failure to pass the exit test since that time had meant not merely an inability to graduate, but also could cancel previously-arranged college admissions and some military enlistments. By being so definitive, it also let employers and others know that a California high school graduate would have certain knowledge and skills.
Legislators clearly could not let 5,000 kids no longer able to access the exam be stranded, plainly justifying their votes of 37-0 in the state Senate and 77-1 in the Assembly to grant those students a reprieve.
But there was no reprieve for the exit exam, suspended since state education officials declined to renew a contract that expired in May with the firm that formerly administered the test.
Their reason: The exit exam did not conform in its math and language arts sections to the Common Core curriculum now being taught in public schools.
Somehow, that didn’t keep the vast majority of high schoolers from passing it. The pass rate last year was just over 95 percent, with many students taking the test as early as their sophomore year. Why has it been so easy? One reason might be that the exit exam’s math section covered mostly sixth- and seventh-grade material, while the English portion reached only the 10th-grade level.
The rationale for discarding all results of the exit exam since 2006 and allowing diplomas to everyone who failed it but met other graduation requirements was that it did not test according to the new Common Core standards. So what? Common Core did not apply in those years, and the vast majority of students passed the test.
One newspaper then featured a happy-talk story about a young woman who failed the math portion of the exam repeatedly, but suddenly became a high school graduate and thus eligible to pursue a registered nurse degree. Would you want someone unable to do seventh grade math calculating fractional drug dosages your doctor might prescribe for you?
The exit exam actually filled its main purpose most of the time it existed, as the story of the putative nurse illustrates. That purpose was as a kind of certification that any high school graduate in the state could safely be assumed to know things no one had been sure of during the era of social promotion that preceded its adoption in 2005.
Now that Common Core has made changes in basic curriculum, legislators easily passed a bill by Democratic state Sen. Carol Liu of La Canada-Flintridge suspending the exit exam requirement until 2019.
Between now and then, educators are supposed to develop a new test. Its nature is still unknown, but a 2013 report by state Schools Supt. Tom Torlakson might offer some clues. He suggested some “alternatives” to the then-in-force exit exam.
One would eliminate the exit test as a stand-alone graduation requirement and use results of the Smarter Balanced assessments – computerized tests aligned with Common Core – to determine readiness for graduation. The state Education Department bills them as the “new generation” of student proficiency assessments.
Another was to use Smarter Balanced tests together with results of voluntary exams like the SAT college admissions test to tell whether students are worthy of graduation. The trouble with that is that it’s usually only college-bound students who take the voluntary tests.
Torlakson also said successful completion of certain courses could determine whether students meet graduation requirements. That could be a lot like life before the exit exam.
The ultimate outcome will likely be an exit exam of some kind, since legislators like state Senate Republican leader Robert Huff are on record saying “Without an exit exam, we will return to the days (of no) guarantee of minimum mathematics and language arts competency. We can’t let that happen to California students.”
So it’s highly uncertain what the new graduation standards will look like.
Meanwhile, the anxiety, efforts and accomplishment of more than 2 million students who passed the test since 2006 are now rendered essentially meaningless.