Education Letter to the Editor

Exit Exams and the Meaning of a Diploma

June 05, 2007 1 min read

To the Editor:

A study released last month by a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, revealed that California state education officials may have underreported the number of students who failed to graduate last year. The study, commissioned by a group that opposes the state’s high school exit exam, suggests that about twice as many students failed to pass that test as the state previously reported.

John Rogers, the researcher, concluded that many in the class of 2006 had dropped out prior to their senior year, more than likely because they failed to pass the exit exam.

Four days after Mr. Rogers’ report was made public, the California Department of Education released its own statistics, which, while not quite as bleak as Mr. Rogers’, nevertheless revealed that only about two-thirds of the class of 2006 graduated. The graduation rate was the lowest in 10 years, and both supporters and critics of the high school exit exam point to the test as a possible cause.

Lost in the brouhaha and criticism is a more fundamental issue. Regardless of whose data we accept, every student who graduates from our public high schools has the right to know that his or her diploma means something.

The high school exit exam is pitched at an 8th grade math level. The test measures only 9th and 10th grade English competency. A student who cannot pass the test should not be given a diploma. Period.

To the extent that the test’s critics claim it is unfair because of unequal educational opportunities, they are right. But the fault lies not in such tests. Rather, we must insist that on every rung of our educational ladders, students are climbing to the next step. We do neither the students nor the public a favor by artificially hoisting students ahead and then handing them a devalued sheepskin.

Patrick Mattimore

San Francisco, Calif.

The writer has taught in both public and college-preparatory high schools in California for over a decade.

A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2007 edition of Education Week as Exit Exams and the Meaning of a Diploma