The California exit exam

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California has been trying to institute a high school exit exam, which students need to pass to graduate. Unfortunately, about 1/10 are failing. This being America, their response is to sue, and Judge Robert B. Freedman just ruled in their favor.

I see four basic objections to the exit exam:

  1. It's unfair because poor and minority students get an inferior education.
  2. It's unfair because people have been passing their classes but now can't pass the exit exam.
  3. It's actually a bad measure of competence (this is in some sense a variant of argument (2)).
  4. It's unfair because it puts California students at a disadvantage to students from other states.

Obviously argument (1) is correct in some sense. Poor and minority students generally get a lousy education and it's obviously especially hard to get a good education in this country if you don't speak English well (about 40% of the people who failed the exam are classified as "limited English learners"). But that doesn't answer the question of whether or not it's unfair to denym a high school diploma. It's unfair that they got a bad education, but that doesn't make it any less true that they didn't. To the extent to which you think a high school diploma is supposed to be a certificate of competence at some set of skills, then it's not clear that it's unfair to deny it to those who really aren't competent, regardless of how they got that way.

A similar objection obtains to argument (2). If people have been passing their classes but they actually haven't mastered the skills the exams are supposed to test, then the schools are indeed failing them (or the test is a lousy measure, see argument (3) below), which, as previously noted, is probably unfair. But again, to the extent to which a diploma is supposed to be a signal of competence, rather than one of an attendance it's not clear that it's fairer to issue it anyway.

Next we have argument (3), that the test is a bad instrument. Of course, any test is only a proxy for some set of knowledge/skills, and I don't know whether this test is a good proxy or it isn't (all the complaining about "teaching the test" is basically an argument that it's a bad one). On the other hand, grades are a proxy as well, and since it's arguable that the whole thing is an exercise in signalling--employers and colleges care about talent and drive more than any particular skillset--it's quite plausible that one's ability to pass a specific test that you know well about in advance is a better signal than your grades.

(4) Many opportunities (jobs, college admissions, etc.) are gated specifically on the acquisition of a diploma. If exit exams were universally adopted, these requirements would re-equilibriate, but if students in California who fail the exit exam are denied diplomas when they would get them in other states, then the California students are obviously at a disadvantage, and the employers/colleges might not feel the need to readjust their standards specifically for Californians.

One compromise I've heard suggested is to keep the same standards for diplomas but to issue an additional credential that indicates that students have passed the exam. Then those who care about the exam would be able to check for that credential whereas those who don't could just use the diploma. This has sort of the opposite problem of denying diplomas to students who don't pass the exam: if employers/colleges/etc. don't readjust their standards then California students who fail the exam won't be at a disadvantage. But if they do readjust their standards then the failing students will be at a disadvantage. And of course even if all states were to adopt such exit exams, poor and minority students would still be at a disadvantage because of point (1) abo e. The only real way to avoid some chance of their being disadvantaged is to suppress the test results entirely.

UPDATE: Fixed failure rate to read 1/10 rather than the typod 1/109.


For some reason, we never see these debates about exams for, say, drivers' licenses or licenses to practice surgery. Perhaps that's because there's a general consensus that it's actually important that drivers know how to drive and surgeons know how to perform surgery, whereas frighteningly many Americans don't really care about (or actually oppose) the general population being literate, knowledgeable and intellectually skilled.

(In fact, many of the most vociferous opponents of widespread educational achievement are teachers and education academics. I've met some of these people, and it's truly disturbing to listen to them explain how dedicated they are to education--by which they mean protecting defenseless children from the damaging effects of being taught to read and write correct English, do arithmetic and basic math, identify and place important geographic features and historic events, etc. etc.)

L.A. Times article quotes a failure rate of 1/10.

It quotes a lot of other crap, too, but I'll have to let my deep irritation subside a bit before I discuss it.

Yeah, 1/109 was a typo

The extra certificate sounds like the system in NY State of granting different local and regents diplomas. The regents diploma requires passing various subject "Regents Exams" established by the state board of regents. In the past I would say that most NYers regarded passing regents exams and receiving a regents diploma as more demanding than local diplomas, though it need not necessarily be so if a locality sets its standards high enough.

I believe NY has considered changing to a system of only regents diplomas and may have done so within the past year, but I'm not sure about that.

The problem here is that there are three constituencies for the decision of whether to grant some kid a diploma:

a. The kid and his parents, who really want him to have a diploma, put a lot of value on it, and are willing to really fight to get that diploma for him, because it will make his life easier.

b. The school officials, who are likely to be judged on drop out rate and graduation rate, but not (without this kind of test) on how much their kids are actually learning.

c. The consumers of the diploma. They really want the diploma to mean something, so they can use it.

Now, (a) and (b) are in a position to know whether their interests are being guarded directly, in each case. (c) is not. Further, in each individual case, (c) is far away, and won't argue the details of letting Billy graduate even though he's never done anythign with a book but eat the cover off, while (a) is right there, ready to lobby for him to graduate somehow.

Students should have to pass a test to graduate, but have every available chance to do so. Not just 5 chances and forget it! Special tutoring should take place, to make sure that they are not being left behind. It should be a include intense extra study focusing on the skills that in each part of the test the student has failed. The help they are getting now for it doesn't cut it!

I resent people making excuses for poor, minority students. By doing so, you are setting different and lower standards for them. I was a poor minority student. My parents are Korean immigrants and worked very hard but my brothers and I certainly went to what would be considered a failing high school. High school students have four years to master basic skills. American education will never achieve excellence if we keep babying students. High achievement on anything requires hard work, consistency and sometimes sacrifice. We can put all sorts of blame on society and failure of schools but when it comes down to it, it is up to the student to take control of their life.

I think the exit exam is a good tool in finding the areas that students are lacking in especially writing and mathematics. But, one test can not determine how smart or well educated one person is. There are many circumstances why one individual many not do particular good on any one of these test. Hey, what if there schools are failing you know red flaged! But, the exit exam is only a tool to measure students as a whole it does not solve the gap in what needs to be taught, I hope this not California's answer to the accountability and "No Child Left Behind" Law.

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