California students are getting better at passing the high school graduation exam, but the test may be on its way out.
The state is in the midst of an education overhaul as schools begin adopting Common Core State Standards, national guidelines that proponents say focus more on critical thinking and problem-solving. California education leaders say an expected shift in classroom instruction and test methods will render the current exit exam obsolete.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has proposed alternatives to the California High School Exit Exam that include scrapping it altogether, using parts of the Common Core test instead or relying on college entrance exam performance to determine eligibility for graduation. Lawmakers are expected to take up the issue next year, though state education officials say a new test is unlikely until July 2017.
“The (exit exam) is very much up in the air,” said Rick Pratt, a consultant for the Assembly Committee on Education. “It’s highly unlikely it will be continued in its current form, because it is not aligned to the Common Core.”
Former Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell wrote the 1999 exit exam bill when he was a state senator and has defended the requirement against its critics. But even he agreed that the test needs to change to reflect new education standards.
The exit exam includes math problems at the sixth- through eighth-grade level, as well as an English portion that tests at the 10th-grade level. All high school students in California, with the exception of some disabled students, must pass it to graduate.
Students first take the test in 10th grade and can retake it in 11th and 12th grades. If they do not pass by 12th grade, they can take the test if they enroll in adult school.
The high-stakes test not only determines whether a student graduates, but also makes up a portion of each school’s Academic Performance Index and Adequate Yearly Progress scores, which reflect the school’s progress at meeting federal requirements.
The test has been controversial since it became law. In 2003, the State Board of Education decided to make the test easier when they realized that the class of 2004 was having trouble passing it. Lawmakers also tried to assuage concerns by passing a number of bills between 2005 and 2006, including one that exempted some students with disabilities from taking the exit exam and others that provided more resources for students struggling to pass.
Education experts generally agree that tying the test to the Common Core will make it more difficult to pass because the new standards are considered more rigorous than they were previously.
Natomas Unified Superintendent Chris Evans said school districts need a transition period before the state makes a new test a graduation requirement. “The (passage) rates will probably go way down,” he said. “I think everyone should expect that.”
Pulling the plug on the current test too soon would be a mistake, said Julian Betts of the Public Policy Institute of California, who has authored two research papers on the exit exam. He said the state should use the exit exam as a yardstick when the new Common Core tests are rolled out.
“It’s the only thing that can still give us some sense of consistency,” he said.
O’Connell said the California High School Exit Exam has raised test scores and lowered dropout rates. It was “designed to be the floor, to give the high school diploma some worth,” he said. “You are setting students up for failure if you hand them a meaningless diploma.”
The test has “increased accountability and awareness,” Evans said. “There needs to be a minimum level of standards by the end of 12th grade.” He doesn’t see the test as a hurdle to graduation, saying almost every student in Natomas Unified passes the test by the time they finish their senior year.
Last school year, 85 percent of the state’s sophomores passed the math portion of the test, while 83 percent passed the English portion – a 9.5 percent improvement overall since the test was first given in 2006. The state rate matched the record-high passage rate from last year, according to the California Department of Education. But few of those who retested their junior or senior year managed to pass the exam.
Some studies have shown that the interventions – usually classes and tutoring – help only a small number of students pass the test. A 2012 PPIC report found that only 1.5 percent to 3 percent of the students who failed the test in 10th grade passed later because of interventions.
New state data show that 86 percent of 10th-graders tested in Sacramento, Placer, El Dorado and Yolo counties passed the math portion of the test during the 2013-14 school year, up 3 percentage points from 2008-09. About 85 percent of local 10th-graders passed the English portion of the test, also up 3 percentage points from five years prior. Nearly all of the 12 largest school districts in the region saw their sophomore passage rates increase.
The highest-performing school in the area was Sacramento City Unified’s West Campus, which saw all 10th-graders pass both portions of the test. Unlike neighborhood-based high schools, West Campus draws students from across the district and requires an application process that considers grades, test scores, behavior records and extracurricular activities. About half of applicants were accepted last year, said Principal Greg Thomas.
West Campus coursework in both English and math are more intense than at most schools, making it easier for them to pass the exam, Thomas said.
Twin Rivers Unified saw the lowest exit exam passage rate among large districts – 72 percent of 10th-graders passed the math portion of the test and 71 percent passed the English portion. Superintendent Steven Martinez said he isn’t satisfied with the passage rate, but is happy with the increase – 5 percentage points in math and 6 percentage points in English – over last year.
Martinez said the district is identifying at-risk students before 10th grade and offering them additional academic support. The district also is changing instructional strategies, particularly in reading and math, and adding more professional development for teachers, he said.
“With higher-quality instruction in the classroom and more rigorous curriculum, we expect our children will perform better on any exam,” Martinez said.
California High School Exit Exam history
1999 – California High School Exit Exam becomes law as part of the Public School Accountability Act of 1999.
2001 – The Legislature and Gov. Gray Davis agreed to delay the exit exam for one year, making the class of 2005 the first required to pass the test of mathematics, English and language arts.
2001 – Two-thirds of the ninth-graders who took the exam for the first time failed to pass both required sections. The low test scores resulted in legislation that delayed the test until 10th grade.
2003 – The Legislature and Davis again delayed implementation, making the class of 2006 the first one required to pass it. The State Board of Education decided to make the test easier.
2006 – A new revamped test is administered. Math section has been simplified and English portion reduced from a two-day to one-day test. Nearly 90 percent of California students pass the exit exam.
2006 – Suit in Alameda Superior Court results in a settlement in 2007 requiring the state to ensure all seniors who failed the test would have two years of additional assistance from their school districts.
2006 – Senate Bill 517 exempts some students with disabilities from the exit exam.
2007 – The passage of AB 347 allows districts to apply for a share of up to $73 million to provide up to two years of intensive instruction to students who haven’t passed the exit exam by the end of 12th grade.
2008 – Intervention becomes optional because of budget cuts, although the California Department of Education encourages districts to continue to provide “intensive instruction.”
Source: Bee research