College & Workforce Readiness

Calif. Schools Chief Sticks by Exit-Exam Requirement

By Lynn Olson — January 17, 2006 5 min read
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California’s schools chief will not support alternative measures for high school seniors without disabilities who have not passed the state’s high school exit test in time to graduate this June.

Students must have the mathematics and English skills measured by the exam to thrive in an increasingly competitive global economy, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell said in announcing his position on the issue Jan. 6.


His stance drew immediate fire from civil rights advocates and others. They say the exam policy is unfair to as many as 50,000 students in the class of 2006 who may not be able to pass both the math and English sections of the test by June, when it is scheduled to become a graduation requirement.

“It is morally reprehensible to have a single high-stakes exam foisted over the heads of the most diverse student population, arguably, in the entire world,” said Jo Ann Rupert Behm, a special education advocate and past president of the California Learning Disability Association.

‘No Practical Alternative’

In September, an independent evaluation estimated that 78 percent of students in the class of 2006 had passed both sections of the California High School Exit Examination. But if current trends prevail, the analysis said, a significant number of students, including substantial proportions of English-language learners and students with disabilities, will not have passed the test by the end of 12th grade.

The report, by the Alexandria, Va.-based Human Resources Research Organization, or HUMRRO, recommended keeping the graduation requirement in place, but exploring other options for students who might not pass the test in time to graduate with their peers.

Mr. O’Connell, who as a Democratic state senator wrote the law creating the exam in 1999, said this month, however, that after reviewing the research and considering the various options for students not in special education, “I have concluded that there is no practical alternative available that would ensure that all students awarded a high school diploma have mastered the subject areas tested by the exam and needed to compete in today’s global economy.”

Under a pending agreement with disability-rights advocates, the graduation requirement will not apply to students with disabilities until 2007. The California Department of Education, the state school board, and the governor had agreed to a settlement in the case of Chapman v. California Department of Education,which had sought to delay the consequences of the test for students with disabilities by one year. But legislation to put the requirement off even longer was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in October, forcing the state into further last-minute negotiations. (“Gov. Schwarzenegger Vetoes Changes to State Exam Policy,” Oct. 19, 2005.)

By late last week, it appeared that all sides in the negotiations were close to a final agreement on SB 517, which would permit students with disabilities who have not passed the exam to graduate with their senior class this June provided they satisfy all other graduation requirements and meet the terms of the original Chapman settlement, including taking the exit test at least once during their senior year and taking advantage of remediation. Only 35 percent of special education students and 51 percent of English-language learners in the class of 2006 have passed both portions of the exam, according to the most recent HUMRRO estimates.

Any delay or changes in the graduation requirement would require an amendment to state law. Legislation to permit alternatives to the graduation test—such as portfolios of student work or locally developed assessments—also was vetoed by the governor last fall, at Mr. O’Connell’s urging.

John Rogers, the associate director of the Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access at the University of California, Los Angeles, is among those opposed to Mr. O’Connell and Gov. Schwarzenegger’s position.

“I think it’s unfortunate because it sets California apart from most other states that have an exit-exam requirement, in not providing other ways for students to demonstrate that they have the competencies the state wants all young people to graduate with,” Mr. Rogers said.

The problem, he said, is compounded by “deep inequities and inadequacies” in California’s school system that make it hard for many young people to succeed. Studies conducted by his center have found much higher failure rates on the exam for students in schools with severe overcrowding, and large percentages of teachers who lack full credentials in their subjects.

But Jim Lanich, the president of the nonprofit group California Business for Education Excellence, commended Mr. O’Connell’s decision, saying the business community pledges to stand behind him.

“The exit exam will ensure students graduate high school with basic skills and a diploma that mean something in the real world,” he said in a statement. “We should be encouraging rigor in our schools, not backing away from it.”

Expanding Options

The California education department had reviewed a number of alternatives for students’ demonstration of mastery of the standards measured by the graduation test. Those possibilities included using students’ scores from an existing exam such as the SAT college-admissions test, creating a state-developed alternative test, collecting a body of evidence such as a portfolio of student work or a senior project, or relying upon locally developed assessments. But for reasons ranging from lack of alignment to the state content standards, to cost, and to a lack of consistency and uniformity, Mr. O’Connell concluded that none of the alternative measures was appropriate.

While there is no substitute for the state exit exam, Mr. O’Connell said, “plenty of options” remain for students who have failed the test to continue their education.

“To be clear, this does not mean, as some have said, that those students who have been unable to pass the exam will be denied a diploma indefinitely,” he said. “It simply means that their basic education is not complete, and they must continue on through our K-12 system, adult education, or community colleges to obtain the necessary skills to warrant receipt of a diploma.”

The state schools chief said he would propose legislation this month to help expand the options for such students, including providing more money and lifting enrollment caps for remedial education, summer school, adult education, and independent-study programs that could help students pass the exam.

Mr. O’Connell also called for students who have not passed the test, but have met all other high school graduation and grade-point-average requirements, to be eligible for the state’s Cal Grants to attend community colleges.


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