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The High School Exit Exam: What’s Next?

Paul Warren September 24, 2014
Highschooltesttaker

The California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE) is likely to be a topic of discussion in the next legislative session. Enacted in 1999, the CAHSEE involves tests in English and mathematics that high school students must pass in order to graduate. Testing started in 2001, but the graduation requirement was held up for several years by legal challenges that resulted in an exemption for special education students.

The immediate issue for the legislature has to do with the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, which take effect this school year. The state overhauled its testing program in 2013, eliminating most testing in high school except grade 11 English and math tests in that are aligned to the new standards. Because CAHSEE is based on the previous standards, the question is whether to update it so that it aligns better with Common Core, find an alternative measure, or eliminate the requirement altogether. For now, passing the CAHSEE continues to be a requirement for graduation.

The question of the CAHSEE’s impact on students and schools is also an important discussion item. The proportion of 10th graders who pass the test has increased significantly, suggesting that students are better prepared in math and English. The chart below shows that 10th grade pass rates on the math test by students in the four largest racial/ethnic groups has increased each year since 2004. Gains made by Latino and black students are especially significant—their passage rates have increased 18 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

Despite these gains, recent research suggests that exit examinations do little to boost student achievement but create costs in the form of lower graduation rates. In total, 95.5 percent of 12th graders in California passed both the English and math sections of the test, meaning that 4.5 percent of students did not graduate on time at least in part because they did not pass the test. This has a bigger impact on black and Latino students, whose 12th grade pass rates remain about 5 percent below those of white and Asian students. Moreover, because these rates do not include students who dropped out of school, they may understate the impact of the CAHSEE requirement on lower-performing students.

In a 2013 report, state education superintendent Tom Torlakson recommended a number of alternatives to the CAHSEE, including successful completion of specific high school courses, new tests that would be given at the conclusion of specific English and math courses, or the new Common Core tests given in 11th grade. Any discussion of updating the requirement would raise the question of the skills students should be expected to demonstrate. The current exam tests students at an 8th or 9th grade level; making the test more difficult would put more students at risk of finishing high school without a diploma. Thus, instead of focusing on aligning the exit exam to the new standards, the legislative discussion may revolve around the benefits and costs of minimum graduation standards to schools, students, and society.

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