Basics fit all

In attacking a judge’s decision to throw out California’s exit exam, Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters attacks the test as a “one size fits all” nonsense. He equates requiring all students to take college-prep courses with requiring all students to master basic reading and math skills.

Common sense tells us that the 6 million-plus public school students in California have immense ranges of intelligence, talent, aptitude, skills and interests. A good educational system would assess those factors and offer each student a program that best suits his or her circumstances in preparation for a successful life, whether that’s fixing cars, advancing astrophysical theory, raising a family, digging ditches, composing music, selling shoes, or any of thousands of other career choices and lifestyles.

It’s nonsensical, therefore, to assume that a high school diploma based, finally, on a test limited to certain language and mathematical skills has any objective meaning. A high-IQ student might sleepwalk through such a test while one with below-average intelligence might study hard and raise his or her academic skills to the highest feasible level and still fail. The exam, moreover, induces schools to teach to the test while shortchanging other, more lasting forms of instruction.

The graduation exam covers elementary and middle-school math skills; the hardest English questions require 10th grade skills but it only takes a 60 percent to pass so students can get by on middle-school English skills and multiple-choice guessing. Students who can’t meet this standard may have futures as ditch diggers, but that’s about it. It takes reading, writing and ‘rithmetic to sell shoes or fix cars.

Walters thinks a high school diploma should reflect whether a student has meet his “innate potential,” which is “a judgment best left to dedicated and knowledgeable educators.” That’s asking educators to lower expectations so everybody gets a diploma, but not everybody gets an education.

In another Bee column, Peter Schrag points out that dumping the graduation exam removes the pressure to do more to help disadvantaged students catch up.

More important, the judge’s ruling, if upheld, is likely to have a perverse effect, reducing the incentive of both schools and the state to provide the quality instruction and remediation that will give disadvantaged students a chance to pass the test and succeed academically.

Schools have been providing extra classes to help students pass; students have worked much harder than ever before to earn a diploma. Now the pressure is off.

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  1. edgeworthy says:

    At this point I think we should throw in the towel on expecting the state to set decent standards.

    I can only hope a private certifying agency would create a voluntary system for demonstrating that high school graduates have attained a minimal level of competence in reading and math. The SATs have mostly played that role, but the attacks on them and the constant tinkering to enhance political correctness have tended to push these tests in the direction of making coarser rather than finer distinctions among students.

  2. Cardinal Fang says:

    the hardest English questions require 10th grade skills but it only takes a 60 percent to pass so students can get by on middle-school English skills and multiple-choice guessing.

    Hmm. I wonder if that’s actually true. If it were, then the average seventh-grader could pass the test. Can the average seventh-grader pass the test?

    (I’m not taking a position on whether the test should be required. I’m just wondering whether a student with middle-school skills can pass it.)

  3. Wayne Martin says:

    I’ll try to find some examples on the WEB of this test later today.

    However, there are books that provide lots of examples:

    You might try to locate one at a public library and review it to see if you can answer your own question.

  4. The test in Texas requires that all students be able to pass a test on high school level english, algebra and geometry, and basic science and social studies. If you want to see a sample of the Texas test, go to the following page:

    This is a higher standard than what California was requiring. In my opinion, if a student can’t read to the level shown in the Texas test, they shouldn’t have been able to pass their high school coursework.

  5. The hardest English/Language Arts questions are pegged to the 10th grade standards, and students need only score 60% on this section to pass.

    The hardest math questions are pegged at Algebra I, which, according to the standards, is an 8th grade course–but so what if it’s really a 9th grade course? We’re talking about graduating high school here. And students need only score 55% on the math portion to pass.

    Jill is correct that students who can’t pass this test shouldn’t have passed their high school courses–but they did. This test is a “quality control” check on the schools and the students, and it’s obviously a needed check.

  6. Wayne Martin says:

    Here are the examples from the CA.DoE WEB-site of the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE):

    CAHSEE Released Math Test Questions:

    CAHSEE Released English Language Arts Test Questions:

  7. ragnarok says:

    “Hmm. I wonder if that’s actually true. If it were, then the average seventh-grader could pass the test. Can the average seventh-grader pass the test?”

    Cardinal Fang, you can’t assume that average 7th-graders can actually perform at 7th-grade level.

    If you could, there’d be no fuss about an exit exam.

  8. ragnarok says:

    Is Walters serious?

  9. Wayne Martin says:

    > Is Walters serious?

    Walters has a pretty good institutional history of California politics, but he and the other columnists at the SacBee seem to be out to lunch when it comes to educational issues.

    His concluding thoughts were very odd, given the topic of a standardized Exit Exam.

  10. dogbert2 says:

    In reading the article, Walters sounds like he has been smoking reefer again. The SacBee seems to be filled with liberal minded types who believe that no one should have to measure up to any standard at all.

    Most jobs today require at a minimum the ability to read, write, and do basic computational math (however, how many high school graduates can actually add two fractions)? The fact that exit exams exist is that the business sector (which attempts to employ high school graduates) and the public are demanding that students have a certain level of understanding material before they are given a diploma.

    We have the same problems here in Nevada, and the amount of whiney parents and students is enuf to give me a coronary (fortunately, our legislature meets only once every two years, so they have no ability to change laws in even-numbered years).

    If Mr. Walters thinks the exit exam is un-needed, perhaps he should go out and talk to some business owners about how badly prepared the future generation of workers really are.

  11. I was unimpressed by the contention that schools should be able to divine a student’s talents and aspirations. “You, Jodie, you’re a forensic accountant. Johnnie, you’re a future forester. Ambrose, you’re a shoo-in for a lawyer. That’s right, you remind me of my ex-husband. How did you know? Now, let’s review our 3 times tables, shall we? Sarah, you’re going to be a statistician–or a dealer–and in either career, math is very important.”

  12. Wayne Martin says:

    > Most jobs today require at a minimum the
    > ability to read, write, and do basic
    > computational math

    The following link points to a list of occupations and salaries for jobs here in California:

    Certainly the top half of the list requires a BS (or better). The bottom half (or so) gets into the less educationally demanding jobs.

    Not clear how much math is required in a lot of these bottom-of-the-list jobs. If the Exit Exam is not going to stand, maybe it’s time to re-examine why people who can’t pass this test are forced to go to school for, say, the 11th or 12th year — when they could probably function in these less demanding jobs.

  13. If Walters wants the diploma to signify reaching one’s innate potential, then fine. Let’s just figure out a way to flag those students whose innate potentials would be out of their leagues at colleges that require them to have rudimentary English and math skills.

  14. Prof210 says:

    Maybe a state diploma should be issued to anyone who shows up for something like a bare majority of the scheduled classes. If colleges or employers feel a higher standard is needed, they can look at AP performance, give their own tests or, better, assess on performance during a probationary period, or otherwise use a “higher bar” in making decisions.

  15. Walter E. Wallis says:

    If schools taught reading, perhaps newspapers would have more customers.

  16. dogbert2 says:

    Actually, the employers should start giving exams, if the prospective employee fails the exam, they don’t get to file their application (i’ve taken exams like this, they measure skills that any high school graduate should understand).

    I’d also have to agree with Walter, the concept of being able to read well has gone down with time, and that for many young people (minus the harry potter series) simply tune out to the concept of reading a book these days…

  17. Wayne Martin says:

    > The employers should start giving exams ..

    This is an interesting, albeit possibly expensive idea, although not certain how many people applying for minimum wage jobs would pass.

    Federal Employment law has become extremely complicated, ostensibly making it difficult for employeers to discriminate against applicants for any number of reasons — including a lack of education. It’s likely that any employeer (over 100 emps) that instituted such a test would be in federal court before the ink was dry on the paper.

  18. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again….since it is beyond obvious that not all high school students are college material, it behooves us as a society to offer different types of curricula. Bring back comprehensive vocational ed and create ‘exit exams’ to reflect this type of curriculum. Why waste tax dollars on trying to force square pegs into round holes year after year? Not all students can or should take trigonometry and calculus, deconstruct Shakespearean sonnets or construct syllogisms; not all students can or should take college prep classes. There is nothing inherently nobler about becoming a mathematician, lawyer or sociologist than becoming a plumber, electrician or mechanic. Pipe dreams of all students getting advanced academic degrees are either naively utopian or elitist and snobby–or both. Read Diane Ravitch’s excellent articles on this issue.

    One more thing…solve the illegal alien problem and you remove a huge subgroup of students who fail the exit exam year after year.
    ‘Nuff said.

  19. Mike, a diag in Texas says:

    Actually, a major employer in the computer industry in Houston does give a basic reading and math test to all of it’s employees.

    It was quite a surprise for a German employee who transferred as company president and spent 3 hours taking tests.

  20. What is the test supposed to measure? Innate potential, or reading ability?

    If this guy is only interested in intrinsic human worth, then let’s have a second test to measure skills that employers might actually want to know about.

    Why are we getting so many of these stories lately? How can an adult of average intelligence not understand that tests measure things?

    Using an eleven-inch ruler won’t make you taller.
    Using a twelve-inch ruler will quantify your height in a way that’s comprehensible to others. It won’t describe your singing voice, or how you treat your aged relatives, or whether you desperately hope to save the whales. There just might be people who wish to know your height, to whom the existence of your grandmother is irrelevant. Conveniently, we have twelve-inch rulers! At least until Dan Walters abolishes them all.

    Government seems to be turning work over to the private sector lately. Homeschooling, space travel, military tools and strategy, the Minutemen, those businesses that do their own testing….

    Which is great, as long as they cede the power and the money as well. They can’t provide and certify a high-school education, so let’s stop funding their attempts, and drop their regulations. Private enterprise will be happy to come up with something better.

    But they don’t seem to want to let go. Won’t do the work, won’t let us do it ourselves, keep taking our cash. Hunh.

  21. Ditch diggers seem to be doing pretty well in L.A. – $34/hour for digging in the sun all day.

  22. I still say that testing teachers would be a good idea. I wonder what level the average California teacher would score on the high school exit exam.

  23. Indigo Warrior says:

    I’d also have to agree with Walter, the concept of being able to read well has gone down with time, and that for many young people (minus the harry potter series) simply tune out to the concept of reading a book these days…

    That’s one reason why Harry Potter is good.