Leaders further devalue diploma

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson
California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson Associated Press file

California’s political and educational leaders are on the verge of eviscerating the high school exit exam, a prerequisite to getting a high school diploma that was adopted after years of political and legal battles.

The test seeks to ensure that high school students have mastered the basics of math and English. An Assembly staff report says 97 percent of students pass it after one or more attempts.

Former Gov. Gray Davis made the test a fundamental part of his administration in 1999, with help from Jack O’Connell, first as a state senator and later as superintendent of public instruction. They were seeking to restore confidence in public schools and ensure that a diploma was worth something.

After battles in the Legislature and litigation that reached the California Supreme Court, the state finally adopted the exit exam as a prerequisite for obtaining a high school diploma in 2006.

That was then. Public education, often subject to fads, is changing once more.

Backed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, Senate Bill 172 by Sen. Carol Liu, a Los Angeles-area Democrat, would grant the superintendent three years to recommend to the Legislature whether an exit exam is needed. That’s hardly a crash course. Then the Legislature would decide whether to insist that a test be developed, or not.

If that weren’t bad enough, recent amendments to the bill would retroactively abolish the exit exam requirement dating to the 2003-04 school year. A spokesman for Liu cited stories of people who are denied licenses for certain trades because they failed the test and have no diploma.

The Assembly approved SB 172 by a vote of 49-25 earlier this week, and returned it to the Senate where final passage is likely.

No doubt, the high school exit exam could be updated, so that it will track with the changing coursework of Common Core standards, a new and promising curriculum that includes testing.

But taking three years to decide whether to recommend whether to have a test is excessive. Worse, retroactively abolishing the existing test diminishes the accomplishments of people who did pass it. A high school diploma means far less than it did decades ago. But it still should count for something.