Earning a high school diploma is a great achievement. It’s one of the challenges that most Americans share and that unite us as a community. From kindergarten to senior year we follow a structured schedule of demanding courses that do more than simply teach us to read, write and add. The diploma at the end of the journey represents a lifetime of accomplishment earned through a rigorous and common course of study and reflects a mature level of preparation for adult life.
There seems to be a philosophical battle between those who recognize the personal and social importance of receiving a high school diploma, and those who understand the intellectual and academic impact of earning a high school diploma. It feels like the personal and social group is winning the war when employers continue to complain about the inadequate job public schools do preparing the work force. It seems like every year we hear about more and more public schools that graduate or promote students into the world without teaching them to read, write and add at the most basic level.
However, California schools today are more focused than ever on rigorous standards and common assessments to make sure that the students do meet at least the most basic levels of proficiency. The current push in California is for all high school students to meet the A-G requirements as determined by the University of California whether or not they plan on attending college. There is additional pressure being applied by California Career Technical Education to teach more vocational education courses that incorporate the standards and better prepare students for the job market. And yet there remains a population of students who either fail to graduate, or instead receive their diplomas without mastering basic skills.
In an effort to ensure the high school diploma maintains its relevance, the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) was recently mandated by the California Department of Education as a requirement for graduation. The CAHSEE is intended to prevent students in California from receiving a high school diploma without first proving that they can indeed read, write and add as assessed on a standardized exit exam.
Last week an Alameda County superior court judge issued an injunction that may remove the requirement for the class of 2006. In an article from the Redlands Daily Facts posted on May 14, 2006, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said, “The preliminary injunction against California's exit exam denies the vast majority of students in the Class of 2006 the opportunity to graduate with diplomas that certify mastery of essential skills in reading and math, and it's bad news for California students who have worked hard to pass the exit exam."
If diplomas don’t, “certify mastery of essential skills in reading and math,” then what do they certify? Is the high school diploma losing its value? Why isn’t the course work completed over 13 years of study adequately preparing some students at even the most basic level? The CAHSEE graduation requirement promotes it to significance almost equal to the catalog of course work required of students to earn their diploma. The effect is huge. Students still have to earn a predetermined number of credits in a variety of subject areas to graduate, but without the CAHSEE, their course work is insufficient to earn them a diploma.
In recent years, California high schools have focused major class time and resources to preparing all students to pass the CAHSEE test. If a student fails the CAHSEE on their first attempt as a sophomore, their elective course choices in some high schools are restricted to review courses designed to help them pass. Students who fail the CAHSEE on subsequent attempts are put at the front of the scholastic line and given even more resources to help them attain the skills needed to pass the test, and ultimately receive a diploma.
O’Connell also stated, "we do no favors to students who have not mastered basic skills by handing them a diploma," he said. "We can better serve those students by helping them to complete their education. I look forward to appealing the case so that, at the end of the legal day, the exit exam will stand as an important measure of accountability in California schools."
How is it possible that students who “have not mastered basic skills” can still receive a diploma? How large are the cracks and how deep are the chasms these students are falling into? So long as social promotion continues to be a normal and acceptable practice, and students continue to move between districts and campuses without a strong support mechanism to ensure an appropriate transfer and placement, kids will continue to fall behind. Add to that the large immigrant population in California pouring students into the system late in their academic careers and it’s not hard to see why some kids struggle to master basic skills despite our best educational efforts.
Accountability in California schools is crucially important. Measuring accountability by a single standardized exit exam that all students must pass in order to receive a diploma may not be as crucial. The problem is the “all” part of the statement. Of course we need a measurement by which “all” students can be assessed. But isn’t that what their course work already measures? How do we design a single test that equally assess a student who was born and raised in California and spent 13 years in the education system the same way it assesses a student who has just moved here from the Philippines and is just learning English?
Diplomas matter. They are a significant and consequential document, not just a simple symbol of mastery of the most basic skills. This year at graduation when we watch our students walk through the gateway of destiny and out into the world armed with their diplomas we should be confident that they are more than adequately prepared for whatever new challenges await them.
EXIT EXAM REINSTATED Today, the Supreme Court of California issued a stay in the case of Valenzuela v. O’Connell, regarding the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE). The stay reinstates the requirement that public school students pass the CAHSEE in order to graduate from high school.
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