California has decided that any student in the past 11 years who met all high school requirements except passing the exit exam can get a diploma anyway.
You heard that right: A bill signed Wednesday by Gov. Jerry Brown lets tens of thousands of students graduate even though they never passed the California High School Exit Examination, better known as the CAHSEE.
The state doesn’t have a clear fix yet on the precise number of students who didn’t clear the exit-exam bar since 2004. But news media reports are putting the figure in the ballpark of 32,000.
What is going on in California?
Well, you might remember that itty-bitty little problem with this year’s exit exam: About 5,000 students suddenly were unable to graduate because the state decided to suspend the testing contract, depriving seniors who hadn’t yet passed the test of their one last opportunity to take it.
California lawmakers jumped in to fix that problem, passing emergency legislation that was signed in August by Gov. Brown. That bill, Senate Bill 725, focused tightly on the problem at hand, allowing seniors in the class of 2015 to earn their diplomas without the exit exam because it was the state—not the students—who caused the problem.
But the legislation that originally triggered the contracting snafu hadn’t yet been approved. That bill, Senate Bill 172, was written to suspend the exit exam for three years while the state figures out an alternative. It had been working its way through the legislature, and state department of education leaders thought it would pass, so they suspended their exit-exam contract with ETS.
Trouble was, it didn’t pass. And there they were, without a final administration of the exit exam, and 5,000 students unable to move forward with their plans for college, the military, and other next-steps. Senate Bill 725 fixed that situation.
But days after that bill was signed, lawmakers amended Senate Bill 172 in ways that would exponentially expand its reach. The first one, on Sept. 1, said this:
The bill would, until July 31, 2018, require the governing board or body of a local educational agency, as defined, and the State Department of Education on behalf of state special schools, to grant a diploma of graduation from high school to a pupil who has met all applicable graduation requirements other than the passage of the high school exit examination.
The second amendment, on Sept. 4, said this:
The bill would, until July 31, 2018, require the
governing board or body of a local educational agency, as defined,
and the State Department of Education on behalf of state special
schools, to grant a diploma of graduation from high school to
any pupil who completed grade 12 in the 2003-04 school year or a subsequent
school year and has met all applicable graduation requirements other
than the passage of the high school exit examination.
UPDATED: Robert Oakes, a spokesman for Sen. Carol Liu, the bill’s sponsor, said she made the legislation retroactive because her office received calls from school districts, who had been getting inquiries from students who had failed—or never taken—the exit exam years ago. That problem was getting in the way of the “next steps” they wanted to take, Oakes said.
“If someone met all the requirements for a diploma [except the exit exam], and up to 11 years later, says, ‘I want to take the next step in my life, join the military, get a professional certification, go to college, I want to pass the exit exam,’ but it doesn’t exist anymore, why should you prevent someone who wants to succeed from doing that?” he said. “For Carol, it was a matter of fairness. She wants people to succeed.”
Georgia and South Carolina have already made similar moves, approving laws that award diplomas retroactively to students who didn’t pass their state’s exit exams.
Get High School & Beyond posts delivered to your inbox as soon as they’re published. Sign up here. Also, for news and analysis of issues that shape adolescents’ preparation for work and higher education.
A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.