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.