by: Sharon Noguchi|San Jose Mercury News
October 8, 2015
Upending a hallmark of California school reform, Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday signed a bill that will award diplomas to thousands of young people who failed the California High School Exit Exam in the past decade.
The new law, which takes effect in January, will allow former high school students who failed the test as far back as 2004 to now graduate, as long as they passed all of their required high school classes. The new law effectively undoes the decade-old requirement, imposed after a hard and bitter fight, that students pass a standardized exam in order to earn a high school diploma in California.
SB 172 by Sen. Carol Liu, D-La Cañada Flintridge, also suspends the exam as a graduation requirement for current freshmen, sophomores and juniors. It passed the Legislature on a partisan vote, with Republicans objecting.
The exam “never had the coherence we need in a state accountability system,” said Chris Funk, superintendent of the East Side Union High School District in San Jose. “I’m happy that it was dropped.”
But the bill was divisive.
“I’m very sorry and disappointed to hear the governor signed it,” said Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, R-San Ramon. “Removing the exit exam not only impairs our ability to ensure we have taught our kids, but impairs our ability to hold our education system accountable for that responsibility.”
She also opposed retroactively granting diplomas: “There is no reason to go back and rewrite exit-exam history.”
But some of those who pushed hard for establishing a statewide exit exam weren’t sorry to see it go. “It may make sense,” said Ryan Smith, executive of the Oakland-based Education Trust-West, which backed the legislation embedding the exit exam as a graduation requirement. He noted that students who’ve failed the exam can’t retake it now, because it doesn’t exist. The state Department of Education ceased offering the exit exam last spring.
It is uncertain exactly how many young people the bill will make eligible for a high school diploma. The California Department of Education does not keep records of those passing the exit exam after they finish high school — students may keep trying to pass while in community college or adult school. But from the Class of 2006 through the Class of 2014, the CDE records show, 32,000 failed to pass the exam while in high school. Some of those passed later.
For the rest, school districts now will be required to award a diploma to those who completed 12th grade in 2004 or later, and who met all other graduation requirements.
Even years after leaving high school, a diploma matters. It’s required to attend four-year universities, receive financial aid, enlist in the military or join apprenticeship programs.
In the early 2000s, state education leaders found that local schools’ proficiency standards were set below high school levels. So, against lawsuits and fierce opposition, they established a statewide exit exam, which students began taking in 2004, and which became mandatory for graduation in 2006.
The exam tests proficiency in eighth-grade math and 10th-grade English. Of the Class of 2014 — the last class with complete statistics — more than 95 percent passed by their senior year.
But recently, educators argued that the exit exam was outdated, because students are learning new Common Core standards. The state declined to renew a contract with the firm administering the exam, and stopped offering tests in the summer. And, a few months ago, the Legislature deleted the exam as a requirement for the Class of 2015.
With Brown’s signature, the new law is a pleasant surprise for those who repeatedly failed the exam, or had given up trying to pass it. While pass rates are high for high school sophomores — the first time they take the test — they decline for higher grades.
For example, only one-quarter of seniors taking the exam in July 2013 passed the math portion and one-fifth passed the English portion.
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