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Living in Dialogue: Why High School Exit Exams, Not Students, are Worthless: Part One

A controversy is brewing in California schools. Last year, Governor Brown signed legislation that not only eliminates the state’s high school exit exam, but also retroactively awards diplomas to the 32,000 students who failed to receive them due to not passing the exam. The following post is written by a former foster child, who draws on her own experience to explain why the exit exam should never return.

By Denise Hertzog Pursche.

Should the state of California succumb to pressure and return to some sort of exit exam to “prove” its students are worthy of diplomas? Or should the exit exam be gone forever?

No one is suggesting students in high school be given a diploma that is not worthy of receiving. However, if a student attends regularly, and if they did the work and received the grades, then they should receive their diploma. This is how it should work. Do the work, get the grades, you get your diploma. And, this is how the new law is written in California. Students still must do the work, they must still get the grades, and they must still attend regularly, meeting all the requirements to graduate, minus the exit exam.

Sure, if you want to have a standardized test at certain points along the way (3rd, 8th and 10th grade),these tests should not be used to deny entrance onto the next grade level, and should not be used to deny a diploma. I don’t have problem with some testing, I have a problem with tests that are used to deny an education and a diploma.

I can assure you though, that my personal story as a child in foster care and the use of standardized test scores were abysmal and had I been required to pass an exit exam, I would have been denied a high school diploma. I know it, because I took a high school exit exam. I also took an ACT, SAT and those scores weren’t much better either. In fact, I failed my high school exit exam and graduated in the 50% of my graduating class.

It’s true, I’m not proud of my high school standing and it’s embarrassing to share that fact, but I attended 3 different high schools and would emancipate from the foster care system when turning 18 years old, at the end of my junior year. Having been held back in the 3rd grade, I needed to hurry up the process so to speak, that way I would graduate prior to emancipation. These were my thoughts at the time.

So, I took easy courses the last year of high school and worked 20-25 hours per-week, to save enough money for an apartment, because I could not return home. This was my focus. Not necessarily doing well on a test, or even learning for that matter, but preparing myself to enter the real world. You see, most students at risk have learned to “live in the moment” and they do not plan for the long term future because their focus is on the now. The question every morning for me was, how do I survive today? During this time in my life, I was not necessarily planning for long term life goals.

Even during college, as noted by my college mentor/professor and after taking my GRE (Graduate Record Exam) who stated, “Those scores look like you can’t read, which I know that’s not true, but what is going on with your scores?” At that time, I couldn’t answer my professor. I just shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t tell him about my childhood. I was looking forward, not backwards.

The law, at the time of my graduation in AZ, was slated to go into effect the following year after my graduation, but still I had to take the test in order to receive my diploma. I guess you could say I was a child in poverty. A foster kid who emancipated from the system. If however, my test scores in high school had been used to deny me a diploma, and it would have if an exit exam had been the law in AZ, (at the time of graduating from high school). And, if an exit exam had been the law at the time of my graduation, I believe I would have never gone onto college had I been denied my diploma, because I failed an exit exam.

For myself, and others like me, I know they will take that failure into adulthood with self-doubt and recriminations about their abilities. I know, because that was me. I said I was not smart enough to go college because of my high school standing and because of my grades and because I didn’t have the money to attend. I truly believed I wasn’t smart enough, even if the money was available.

However, I guess as luck would have it, a man who I often think of as my father figure told me different, and we planned how I would be a success. I went to junior college first, then the university. The first on my mother side of the family to graduate from college. I went onto graduating with honors from my under grad, and high honors in my master’s degree. I took lots of science, math, statistics, and research methods courses. I know my college education made a huge difference in my life in unimaginable ways and without my college degrees, my life and my path would have been so very different.

And, guess what? That old man was right!

Over the last 10 years under the old standards (in California) and since 1996 (when the idea of an exit exam was first introduced in California), and since 2006, when an exit exam was required, the test “set scores” were set really low.

Sure, some kids still failed the test. A lot of minorities, ELL, and poverty students failed it. The set score/cut scores were set at like 30% to pass the test and still many failed the test. If an exit exam is required in the future, I sure hope the State DOE will use a very low set score.

The findings?

Here’s what the Public Policy Institute of California found: “Our findings suggest that two interventions have helped some students pass the exit exam—AB 347 funding for students who return to school after failing to pass the CAHSEE by the end of grade 12, and San Diego’s CAHSEE prep classes for students who fail to pass the exam in grade 10. The third intervention, AB 128 tutoring, did not appear to have any significant influence. These interventions have not helped as many students as we would like. Of the students who failed one or both components of the exit exam in grade 10, fewer than 1 in 30 subsequently passed because of these interventions. Or to put it another way, only 1 to 2 percent of all grade 10 students passed the exam because of these interventions.” And, that doesn’t even take in account the cost of these programs. Can you say these programs failed? I can.

So, what do I think will happen over the next several years?

Various groups may pressure the state to restore an exit exam. Two years ago, Superintendent Torlaksonfloated the idea of using the SBAC Common Core tests to replace the exit exam. If this comes to pass, what will be the outcome? A lot of kids will fail the test for various reasons (ELL, foster kids, students in poverty, etc.) and they will not receive a diploma, as some did not receive one over the last 10 years. What will that mean for our society?

As Diane Ravitch says, you will have two classes of people, one with a diploma and one without a diploma. This will not be good for society as you’ll likely see it cut along economic levels. You will also see minorities in poverty and ELL and students with disabilities, who will be denied their diploma because they failed their high school exit exam. Requiring a test when you have students who live in poverty, is not the right thing to do, especially when we know poverty affects test scores, or test scores are cut along economic indicators.

And, yes, if the tests return, foster kids will fail these tests in epic numbers. How is it a good idea to deny a foster kid the ability to get a job without a diploma? How is that helpful? How can a foster kid, already in a situation of struggle, even as an adult able to move on without a diploma?

I just can’t image how I would have gone to a potential employer and they asked me, “Do you have your diploma?”, “Where did you graduate from high school”, and had I said, “I don’t have a diploma”, or “I didn’t graduate”, it might have affected my ability to get a minimum wage job. How is that helpful? It isn’t.

And, then there is this evidence, as noted by Anthony Cody,

\a new study sheds startling light ona strong connection between high school exit exams and rates of incarceration. The authors of the study, Olesya Baker and Kevin Lang, compared states with exit exams to those that did not, and found that roughly one percent of students failed their exit exams and were denied diplomas as a result. This population of young people had a 12.5% increase in their rate of incarceration. The study found no particular benefits, in terms of employment or wages, from the exit exams.

The California State Legislature and DOE are correct; we should return to “no exit exam required for graduation”. Sure, you still have to attend and you still have to do the work and you still have to get the grades, but to deny a diploma to a child in poverty, or a foster kid, or an ELL, is mean and cruel. It is mean and cruel to deny a child a diploma after they did the work and because they failed an exit exam. In fact, by denying them a diploma, you set them on the path as an adult with failure, and that is a very difficult thing to overcome.

If the traditional high school exit exams are on the way out, will schools, local education agencies, industry and parents beg for an indicator of success, via some type of score on a test? And, will they beg for the ACT, or SAT, or even a consortia assessment from Smarter Balanced or PARCC as the answer?

Well,according to education officials in New Jersey,Governor Chris Christie’s administration, “the state will start using new optional testing or evaluation methods for high school graduation beginning in 2016.” “In no way, shape or form does a school have to use [PARCC] for graduation,” Hespe said. “We’re just saying they can use it.”

Does this make you wonder if the consortia would like their tests to replace the high school exit exam? How about the ACT, or SAT, replacing the high school exit exam? If this is true I ask, how will students such as ELL, foster kids and low income students fare? Well, if current results concerning the Smarter Balanced and PARCC assessments are any indicator, I say, not too well.

More to follow in Part 2 of Why High School Exit Exams, Not Students, Are Worthless  

Other Resources:

Are High School Exit Exams Necessary? More States Are Saying No., April 3, 2015.

California Laws: On January 1st, Student Won’t Have to Pass High School to Receive Diploma., December 27, 2015.

Common Core Ruins the Lives of the Poor, Unskilled Americans by Making GED Needlessly Complex. The DC, January 2015.

Every Time Foster Kid Move, They Lose Month of Academic Progress. The Atlantic, February 28, 2014.

Conservatives for Exit Exams: A lesson in high stakes testing. Stop Common Core in Washington State, December 30, 2015.

Diane Ravitch’s Blog: Who Set the Passing Marks for the Common Core Tests? A Design for Failure. National Education Policy Center, September 10, 2015.

Foster Youth Switch Schools at Huge Rate. Ed Source, Inc., April 2013.

Governor Signs Bill Allowing Diplomas for Students Who Failed Exit Exam. Ed Source, Inc., October 2015.

High School Exit Exams Fuel School to Prison Pipeline. Take Part, July 11, 2013.

Moments That Change Lives. Foster-A-Dream.Org., 2012.

Policy Matters: What Percentage of State Polled Prison Inmates were Once Foster Care Children. California Senate, and the Office of Research, December 2011.

Programs help foster youth achieve college success. USA Today News, January 1, 2012.

SAT Scores and Family Income. The New York Times, August 27, 2009.

The Case Against Exit Exams. New America Education Policy Brief, July 24, 2014.

The Counterfeit High School Diploma. The Editorial Board. New York Times, December 31, 2015.

The Problem with Using the ACT as the High School Exit Exam. Take Part. February 2014.

This law California just passed may signal the end of our republic. Allen B. West, blog post, December 28, 2015.

Under half of students projected to test well. Ed Source, Inc., November 17, 2015.

Why Graduation Tests/Exit Exams Fail to Add Value to High School Diplomas. Fair Test. National Center for Fair and Open Testing. May 2, 2008.

Denise Hertzog Pursche has been married for the past 15 years to her wonderful husband Daren.  After spending many years in the corporate world as a Consultant, Denise currently is a stay-at-home mom and considers herself a late bloomer.  A mother of 3 school age children, 3rd grade twins (Girl/Boy) and a 7th grade daughter, Denise became interested in education reform movement when she started seeing homework changes due to Common Core State Standards.  Over the last three to four years, Denise has been researching and reading about K-12 education reform movement.  Denise completed her Master’s Degree at San Jose State University, graduating in 1996, and completed an undergraduate degree from Arizona State University in 1988. 

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Denise Hertzog Pursche

Denise Hertzog Pursche completed her Master's Degree at San Jose State University and has been researching K-12 education reform over the last three to four...