California Exit Exam Blamed for Dropouts

Published January 1, 2007

In 2006, California experienced a slight increase in its high school dropout rate, the first such increase in seven years, according to a study released on October 31 by the 55-year-old Human Resources Research Organization (HumRRO), a coalition of experts who work to improve team performance, based in Virginia.

Though the dropout rate increase was small, from 7.2 percent to 7.8 percent, it has sparked debate within the California educational and legal community. Critics say it’s because the class of 2006 was the first required to pass the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE).

The exit exam has been controversial since its inception in 1999. Originally, the class of 2004 would have been required to take it, but the test was stalled by legislation proposed to modify and monitor the exam, which includes an English-language arts section and a math component.

Competence Required

In addition to passing their classes, California students have several chances to pass the exit exam between their sophomore and senior years. According to HumRRO, of the 75,000 high school seniors who needed to pass the CAHSEE requirements to receive their diplomas in June 2006, approximately 36,000 had done so at some point in the past three years. And once the July 2006 exit exam results became available, the California Department of Education reported more than 400,000 of the 450,000 members of the class of 2006 had passed the exam.

Lisa Snell, director of education programs at the Reason Foundation, a free-market think tank in Los Angeles, said the test is a step in the right direction.

“High school students should have minimal competence in basic areas,” Snell said. “There is no problem with an exit exam in that it gives students something to set their sights on as far as standards.”

Litigation Followed

As half of the 75,000 students who needed to pass the exam to get their diplomas by the end of the 2005-06 school year failed to do so (according to HumRRO’s estimates), reaction came swiftly, in the form of a class-action lawsuit filed in February 2006. Arturo Gonzalez of Morrison and Foerster, LLP represents approximately 40,000 students statewide who have passed all other requirements for a high school diploma except the exam.

“The court has already said that the students who did not do well are entitled to more instruction as a means to pass the exam,” explained Gonzalez, referring to a May 2006 injunction by an Alameda County judge that temporarily blocked the CAHSEE, although a California appeals court ruled against the injunction in August. “But the problem is the Class of 2006 is gone. We are trying to get a letter sent out to them that says they can come back and take the California High School Exit Exam prep class in January. But of course, some of them will not come back.

“For the Class of 2007 and beyond,” Gonzalez continued, “we are trying to figure out a better way to prepare those students for the exam so they have a real chance of passing.”

Snell said litigation is to be expected.

“I think one of the things the lawsuit will do is make another attempt to provide an inadequacy claim,” Snell explained. “Not only will they say [the exam is] not fair in general but they will also make the claim that students failed because the state has not adequately prepared these students [for it].”

Fairness Factor

CAHSEE’s critics say the test is unfair because economically disadvantaged students struggle on it, as do racial minorities.

“You’ll just have more and more poor kids left behind with the exit exam,” Gonzalez said. “Most of the people who voted for this test don’t know what it’s like to be poor and live in a low-income neighborhood.

“I’m also convinced that with this test there will be some kids who will go to high school, try and do their best and then see the test as yet another barrier and say, ‘The hell with it’ and give up. I don’t believe in putting another obstacle in the face of students that are already struggling to get through school,” Gonzalez said.

Real-World Relevance

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell said the test is an ideal way to ensure graduates are ready to move on to college or the workplace.

“The exit exam is designed to ensure that all students graduate with at least the basic level of knowledge and skills needed in the workplace and in life,” O’Connell stated in an August 22 news release.

Gonzalez isn’t convinced.

“The notion that somebody who passes this test is prepared for society and someone who doesn’t is not is ridiculous,” Gonzalez said. “The test is not indicative of the skills that are used in society. For instance, one of the questions that would be on the test is, ‘What is the square root of 800?’ My answer to that is, ‘Who cares?’

“For 90 percent of the jobs in America the answer is, ‘Who cares,'” Gonzalez continued. “Most people in America will never have to know the answer to those questions.”

No Silver Bullet

Although the debate over the test’s fairness continues, Snell said exit exams have a future in California and other states. But the results need to be evaluated carefully and help implement innovative programs that will address the problems such exams are sure to highlight, if they are to be a real success, she warned.

“I think the exam is going nationwide, but I don’t think it’s a silver bullet,” Snell said. “The real problem is that students are locked into an institutionalized high school system, with large schools and classes, that was put into place 150 years ago, and their parents have no other choice but to keep them there.

“The exit exam will be another indicator that something is wrong, because the students can’t pass basic math and reading tests, but it won’t change anything if the system is not changed itself,” Snell warned.

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Chicago.

For more information …

“Independent Evaluation of California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE): Year 7 Report,” California Department of Education, October 31, 2006,