Special Education Opinion

Will California Use Common Core Tests as a High School Exit Exam?

By Anthony Cody — January 17, 2014 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Last week, California’s state superintendent of education Tom Torlakson casually mentioned something that could have huge implications for students and teachers. At a meeting Torlakson held with parents and teachers, the Sacramento Bee reports, “Torlakson said his department is interested in embedding the California High School Exit Examination into the Smarter Balanced tests.”

I contacted Superintendent Torlakson for clarification, but got no response. Someone with connections in the State Department of Education told me:

I think what they are talking about is whether or not to use a performance level on the whole Smarter/Balanced test or a subset of questions on the Smarter/Balanced as qualifying for graduation so they can eliminate the CAHSEE. The level would have to be set realistically (lower than NAEP proficiency which is like A's and B's) or it would be unfair to many students.

There has been talk recently of abandoning the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE), and I think that would be a great thing to do. In 1999, the state of California joined others around the country in making it impossible to graduate high school without passing a high school exit exam. According to this analysis by Jo Anne Behm, the state spends $72.5 million a year directly for the test, and many millions more on test preparation.

Last summer research was published showing that exit exams such as these offer no discernable advantages to the students forced to take them, or the economy of the state. In fact, exit exams were found to significantly raise the likelihood of incarceration for the students that fail to pass.

California is a state that has pushed back against high stakes testing, especially since Torlakson was elected superintendent, and Jerry Brown was elected governor. There has been intense ongoing pressure from Duncan’s Department of Education to tie test scores to teacher evaluations, and the federal government has even gone so far as to cut a side deal with eight districts, giving them relief from NCLB in exchange for agreement to buy into such “reforms.”

The idea that we would use the Smarter Balanced tests as a high school exit exam is deeply problematic. If we are, in fact, attempting to move away from high stakes tests, this would impose the greatest consequence possible on performance on these tests.

We need to be very clear about what it means when a test is used in this manner. In the absence of an exit exam, a diploma is earned when students pass 30 to 40 high school courses, requiring nearly 16,000 hours of attendance in classes led by certified professional educators. When a test is used as an exit exam, it trumps this process.

The Smarter Balanced tests will be given to all students in a trial run in California this spring, and then we will have a much clearer picture of their impact. When Pearson’s Common Core tests were given to students in New York last year, only 31% of the students reached proficiency. For English Learners, less than 4% were proficient. Special Ed students also rated poorly - with about 5% hitting the proficient mark.

My source indicates that a lower cut score than “proficient” would most likely be used if the Smarter Balanced tests are used as an exit exam, but this could still have devastating effects for many thousands of students. Roughly 25% of California’s K12 students are English Learners. That is about 1.4 million students.

The whole Common Core package has been sold to us as being more “rigorous,” and this has been defined as more difficult. Is it possible that a state where the governor and state superintendent supposedly understand the dangers of high stakes tests would back into using Common Core tests for the most high stakes purpose possible?

Given that high school exit exams have been ineffective at improving outcomes for students, and may even raise levels of incarceration, it would best serve the students to eliminate them entirely. Using the new Common Core tests for this purpose is likely to cause great harm to many students, and add tremendous pressure on schools to teach to the test.

The Public School Accountability Act created a committee to explore these issues, and it holds public meetings, where these issues will be discussed. If you are a parent, student or teacher in California, please let this committee know what you think.

What do you think? Should California consider using Common Core tests as high school exit exams?

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.