More high school students passing Exit Exam

Lalonie Williams, 15, gets advice from 10th-grade American 
literature teacher Chris Harris at Wallenberg High in S.F. 
Photo: Jason Henry, Special To The Chronicle / SF
The vast majority of the class of 2012 - 95 percent of the state's 450,000 seniors - passed the California High School Exit Exam by graduation day, an all-time-high pass rate, according to results released Wednesday.

Not surprisingly, state education officials celebrated the news, noting steady improvement from the 90 percent pass rate in 2006, the first year students were required to pass the math and English test in order to graduate.

"When 95 percent of California students are hitting the mark - despite the tremendous challenges we face and the work we still have to do - there's an awful lot going right in our public schools," said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

Yet critics of the Exit Exam have long questioned whether passing the test is anything to celebrate.
The exam, which was adopted by the Legislature in 1999, tests students on eighth- or ninth-grade math and 10th-grade English skills. Students are first required to take the exam in their sophomore year and have several chances to pass it.

Over the years, the state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars administering the test as well as providing remediation, tutoring and test preparation to ensure students who graduate meet minimum standards.
And yet the Exit Exam isn't much of a gatekeeper. Relatively few students who didn't pass would have graduated anyway because they didn't finish required coursework.

In San Francisco, for example, 109 of the district's 4,058 high school seniors were denied a diploma in the spring solely because they had not passed the Exit Exam.

And those students were eligible to take the test again after their senior year. Those results were not available.

In other words, the Exit Exam is costly, measures early high school skills on a multiple-choice test, and the vast majority of students pass it.

Is it worth the time, energy and money?

A baseline test

Many education and business leaders have time and again answered yes.

"It's a low bar," acknowledged Muhammed Chaudhry, CEO of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, which works with local industry to support policy and programs that prepare students for college and careers. "If you can't pass eighth-grade algebra and 10th-grade English, you are not going to be ready for college. You're not going to be ready for the workforce by any means."

However, passing the Exit Exam also doesn't mean you are ready for a job or college, Chaudhry said. Still, it's a standardized way to ensure every high school graduate has at least those minimal skills, he said.
"You have to have a floor to have (a diploma) mean anything," he said.

Currently, all students must pass the test to graduate except special education students.

In the meantime, education officials note that certain students - African American, Hispanic and poor students as well as English learners - are more likely to fail the Exit Exam compared with white and Asian teens.

In a 2009 study on the effectiveness of the exam, Stanford University researchers found that minority students and girls of all races scored lower on the exam than white male students with the same level of academic achievement, a disparity attributed to a greater fear of failing on the high-stakes test rather than a lack of actual skill.

"Our analysis suggests that, to date, this is neither money nor time well spent," said one of the study's co-authors, Sean Reardon, at the time.