Solve exit exam dilemma with another sheepskin

Heading back to school this fall, California high school seniors
face a new kind of pressure: As things now stand, they’ll have to
pass the state’s new high school exit exam or have no diploma of
any kind to show for their four years of secondary school work.
Heading back to school this fall, California high school seniors face a new kind of pressure: As things now stand, they’ll have to pass the state’s new high school exit exam or have no diploma of any kind to show for their four years of secondary school work.

That’s a good thing on some levels: The high school diploma will come to have real meaning that it has lacked through an era of social promotions and grade inflation.

Employers will be able to assume things about levels of math and English proficiency in people they hire that they have not been able to take for granted for decades.

But there are problems with the exam, too, leading to protests at school districts in many parts of the state.

What of learning disabled teenagers who can’t complete the exam in the time allotted but nevertheless have demonstrated mastery of the same subject matter in repeated classes?

What of students who are just lousy test-takers and tend to perform badly under time pressure, no matter how often they take a test?

These are legitimate questions in an era when dyslexic students or those with other learning disabilities progress to medical and other professional schools from colleges that allow them to compensate for their failings by demonstrating knowledge in venues other than tests.

The argument for forcing the learning disabled, as well as those listed as English learners, to pass the exit exam goes like this:

Everyone who wants to be a lawyer or a doctor or an accountant or even a real estate broker or contractor must pass some sort of exam. Flunk and you can take it again. But you either pass or you don’t join the profession.

That way, clients, patients and customers can be confident of dealing with someone who at least knows the basics of the profession.

Why not establish the same kind of baseline for high school grads? It’s a valid argument and reason enough to keep the exit exam.

Besides, it will be impossible for school districts to hide the results if large numbers of students fail. For the first time, that will introduce true accountability to local school districts and the boards that govern them.

But what about those who fail, but are nevertheless competent?

The answer is to set up a different kind of sheepskin for them.

As the summer progressed, legislation sponsored by Democratic Assemblywoman Karen Bass of Los Angeles aimed at allowing school districts to propose their own versions of the exit exam, such as existing skills tests that are just as rigorous but test on subjects closer to a particular school’s curriculum.

Other advocates of altering the exit test argued students should be allowed to demonstrate competence by other means than testing, perhaps through reviews of their past classwork and teacher assessments.

This makes sense, but it’s comparable to saying OK, let’s let everyone who graduates from law school practice law regardless of whether they can pass a bar exam. If you’re a potential client, chances are you’d much rather have a lawyer who both graduated and passed the bar and so can hold up under a little pressure. Same for an employer taking on a high school graduate to work as a bank teller or hardware store clerk.

The obvious solution is to create different levels of diplomas. Let everyone graduate on schedule who’s qualified under the various proposals to alter the exit exam.

But apply some kind of designation to the sheepskins of kids who both do the classwork and pass the exam. And some other to those who can’t hack the test.

That way, all who do the required work will get diplomas and be able to list themselves forever as high school graduates.

But those with the ability to pass the test can say they are extra-graduates, or some other designation.

Employers who want to know what kind of diploma an applicant has could easily find out.

This would allow everyone who in the past would have been deemed worthy of graduating to proceed as before, making applications to colleges or seeking work or joining the military or whatever they want.

It would also let colleges and employers know something more about those they are considering.

That’s essentially what universities do now when they award regular diplomas to most graduates, while designating others as cum laude, magna cum laude and summa cum laude.

If it’s good enough for the likes of Yale and Stanford and UC Berkeley, why shouldn’t California high schools do something similar?

Tom Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It.” His email address is [email protected]

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