High School Exit Exam

Good Questions

The trouble with good questions is that they beget so many others.

Take, for example, an April 23rd Argus article about a Stanford University study of the California high school exit exam. The study documented how graduation for some minority groups has declined by 20% since the exam’s full implementation in 2006, while student achievement has stagnated. “The exit exam isn’t working as intended,” lamented Sean Reardon, one of the study’s lead authors.

“I continue to believe,” rebutted State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jack O’Connell, “that the exit exam plays an important role in our work to ensure that a high school diploma has meaning.”

Reardon’s and O’Connell’s disagreement begs two important but embarrassing questions (embarrassing because of the evident lack of consensus regarding their answers still two years after all high school students began taking the exam):

First, what is the exam’s purpose? Is it to force kids to study harder and learn more? Or is it to document that, after 12 years of schooling, they have accomplished more than seat time, that they’ve mastered requisite knowledge and skills?

The answer is likely both, but the Stanford study reveals that the exam has failed on at least the former goal.

The latter one, of course, begs the second, more contentious question: What sort of knowledge and skills should a high school senior posses in order to graduate?

Elitist answers have held sway recently, calling for all high school graduates to be prepared for prestigious four-year universities (even though, currently, only about a quarter of the U.S population ever earns a college degree). Hence, schools have eliminated trade, art and music classes in favor of Algebra and Physics for all, beginning even in 8th grade.

The only consensus has been, not what a high school diploma ought to mean, but how important earning one is. “If you drop out of high school,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, “you’re basically condemned to social failure. There are no good jobs out there if you don’t have a high school diploma….”

Which gives rise to yet another important, but disconcerting question: Why do so many kids—approximately 30% nationally—drop out? And, the corollary question: Why are such a disproportionate number of them urban, poor, and minority?

Hispanic teens, for example, drop out at a rate four times that of their Caucasian peers. Meanwhile, in cities like Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, and Indianapolis, fewer than 35% of teens graduate.

Whatever is the matter with American kids and their schools?

The simplistic, default answer has been a lack of standards, and this has led to most of our recent failed attempts at reform such as No Child Left Behind, High Stakes Testing, Vouchers, and exit exams.

None of them, however, acknowledge, much less attempt to ameliorate other, more complex and more damning explanations for this nation’s education woes, which might include, for instance, the fact that our schools are more segregated by race and class now than ever before.

Or that the education profession attracts the bottom percentiles of our college graduates, convinces as many as half of them to quit within 5 years, and usually sends the least qualified of them to work with our neediest students.

Or that our factory-model of instruction has changed little since the end of the 19th century.

Or that our ever-increasing consumerism favors television over reading, text-messages over writing, instant gratification over a caring for others or the future.

Unfortunately, these other answers lend themselves to no easy panaceas. No, they would involve a huge commitment of effort and resources to address. They’d require, in fact, a reordering of our national priorities

You see, sincerely asking about the challenges facing our schools must eventually lead to other terribly profound questions. Is our society healthy and just? (If it were, we’d make children, all of them, our primary concern.) What is the greatest threat to our survival as a people and a nation? (Perhaps it isn’t Al-Queda.)

The trouble with questions is you never know where their answers might lead. This may explain why we are so often afraid to ask them.


I have an investment opportunity for everyone: I’m launching the Ellison Superior Widget Corporation. Throughout California I’m going to construct factories that will manufacture the finest widgets in the world.

I have envisioned a rather unique business plan, though. I’m not going to spend much on the factories. Most will be dark, dank, dreary, decaying. Also, many of the widgets arriving for final assembly will be defective or even broken. Furthermore, I’ll hire the least qualified workers (The majority will quit after only a few years.), and concentrate the most inept of them in the worst of my factories.

Never fear, however: I’m going to test each of the widgets as they pass along the assembly line; and then publish the embarrassing results in the newspapers, thus shaming the factories and their workers into improving their performance. Then, just to be sure, I’ll have another test at the end of the line, and throw out all the widgets that don’t meet my “high standards.”

Brilliant, right?

No? That’s odd, because that is precisely the way we’ve run California’s public schools. We’ve consistently underfunded them, rising only recently to just barely above the national average (without factoring in the outrageous cost of living here). As a result, the ACLU recently won a lawsuit, citing that “Thousands of California's school children are forced to study in overcrowded, unsafe, poorly ventilated buildings with terrible slum conditions.” Indeed, we have the second highest student-teacher ratio in the nation. This despite the fact that we have one of the highest rates of child poverty (19%), and highest percentages of non-English speaking students, (nearly 25%).

Then, as with the rest of the nation, we’ve usually staffed our schools with the least qualified college graduates, those scoring near the bottom of every single index, such as GPA, SAT and GRE scores, etc. Most--usually the better ones--leave the profession within five years. And we’ve sent the worst of rest to our inner-city, struggling schools.

But, because we’re so clever, we’ve given our kids standardized tests every year, publishing the “shocking” results in the newspapers, and punishing the lowest performing schools. This year we’ll also require high school seniors to take an exit exam, and punish as well any who fail by denying them a diploma. Brilliant, right?

No. Most definitely no. The fact of the matter is that we in California have been fooling ourselves for decades. We’ve cowardly ignored the “elephants in the living room,” the “Emperor’s New Clothes”--call them what you will--the obvious, pressing, but intractable real educational issues such as underfunding, decrepit schools, parental neglect, poor teacher quality, racial and socio-economic segregation, gross inequity…. We’ve looked to testing, touting “high standards” as an easy panacea. Of course, it hasn’t worked. It never will.

I wonder, though, if--by means of a bizarre, unforeseen boomerang effect--we may inadvertently drag ourselves kicking and screaming towards true reform. You see, the chickens are finally coming home to roost, especially with the impending High School Exit Exam. Many students will fail. Most of them--surprise, surprise--will have attended awful inner-city schools. Then, their parents will sue, arguing correctly that California never really offered their children the opportunity to succeed; that testing, while documenting this fact, did nothing to ameliorate it. And, as with the ACLU, the parents will win.

Thus, those who have long shirked their own responsibility by cravenly holding only teachers and now students accountable, will discover that their ploy has come full circle around to implicate them. Very soon, all of us may be held accountable. Then we’ll finally have to acknowledge just what kind of poor investment we’ve made.