Educators: High school exit exam needed, but is it right for everyone?
January 12, 2006
Standardized tests continue to mount, and this year will mark the first that California public high schoolers will have to pass an exit exam in order to receive their diplomas.So far, 12 percent of the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District’s seniors have yet to pass the exam.”The business community, and rightly so, were complaining loudly that they were seeing graduates that were not able to read and write and compute,” said school district Director of Curriculum Jessamy Lasher. “And then you were hearing from colleges that they were having to provide more remedial classes for incoming freshmen.”School district educators say that even though the test – which 22 percent of California’s high school seniors have not passed – is necessary, though difficult for students with learning disabilities and those who speak English as a second language.”It’s only fair from some people’s point of view,” said Tahoe Truckee High School counselor Paul Christensen of the controversial requirement, noting the disadvantages certain groups of students encounter when trying to pass the test. “But it’s probably as fair as this kind of test can be.”The California High School Exit Exam, or CAHSEE, has two-part test of minimum competency that focuses on English language arts and math. Writing and reading skills are tested at the 10th grade level, and the math portion includes basic arithmetic, algebra, and geometry.The CAHSEE was enacted into state law in 1999, by the California Department of Education under the recommendation of then-governor Gray Davis. It’s goal is to improve high school students’ educational achievements and to ensure that graduating teens can show proficiency in writing, reading and math. “It was supposed to affect last year’s seniors, and then it was postponed to give districts and teachers more time to gear up for it,” said Christensen. Helping the hinderedStudents with learning disabilities and students whose second language is English have the most trouble passing the CAHSEE, according to educators. Lasher described special education students as having different ways of processing information that often require individual education plans that allow for alternative methods of teaching and approaching evaluations.Some students with learning disabilities may perform better when extra time is allowed for tests, or when reading material or questions are read aloud to them or taped for listening, according to Lasher. Fortunately for these students, when taking the exit exam, those special allowances are available.Such is not the case for ESL (English as a second language) students, for whom the exit exam has proven to be especially hard. The CAHSEE is only offered in English, so even if an ESL student is an excellent mathematician, without being able to comprehend the exam’s directions he or she might score much lower than they would otherwise.”Everybody learns language at a different rate,” said Tom LeFevers, an ESL teacher at North Tahoe High School. Many of his students struggle with the exit exam, he said, especially the essay section. In order to help the students prepare for the test LeFevers focuses on teaching them essay writing techniques and tips. And while seniors must pass the test in order to receive a high school diploma, the evaluation does not take into account the student’s classroom performance in writing, reading and math skills – passing grades only earn the student a certificate of completion – not a diploma. “If [students] are getting good grades in their classes, shouldn’t that be enough?” posed Chloe Schildhause, a senior at North Tahoe High. “Some people just aren’t good at tests.”Despite the disadvantages for some seniors, the school district is approaching the issue proactively. Currently, there are summer programs available to help students prepare for the test, as well as small-group tutoring. Students start taking the test in their sophomore year and are allowed six opportunities to pass. “The idea is to pass it as a sophomore, and never have to take it again,” said Christensen.Lasher explained that with each test taking, students typically improve their scores and their confidence levels as well.But when it counts – and it does starting this school year – some students, LeFevers feels, will give up if they do not pass, despite hard efforts all along.”It’s heartbreaking,” LeFevers said. One of Lefevers’ major problems with the test, he said, is the literature response section. Lefevers said the questions are asking for a “college-level” response, versus a response that demonstrates the student’s basic writing skills.”We just need to know their basic competency level,” LeFevers stated, “not if they are college-bound.”WHAT HAPPENS TO STUDENTS WHO DON’T PASS?”If you cannot pass the CAHSEE, you do not get a diploma. Period,” said Lasher, though she noted that students who do not pass can re-enroll as a fifth-year senior, and try taking the CAHSEE one more time.Students may also complete a high school diploma or adult basic education program, offered by some California community colleges. Sierra College’s Truckee campus does not offer any such programs, yet, but officials are looking into adult basic education options, said Truckee campus Dean Rick Rantz.- The Sierra Sun’s Christine Stanley contributed to this report.