State Cancels Exit Exam, At Least For This Year

Tuesday June 17, 2003

Students who have still not passed both sections of the high school exit exam may soon be able to breathe a sigh of relief. Under intense pressure from teachers and civil rights advocates who say the high-stakes exam unfairly punishes students for the inequalities in the educational system, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell announced that he was canceling the July administration of the test and recommending that the State Board of Education vote to postpone the requirement until 2006. 

In a June 12 letter to county and district administrators, O’Connell said his decision to cancel the test this year and all future years was based on complaints from administrators who said the test didn’t coincide with their summer schools.  

But the most notable part of the letter was O’Connell’s decision to push the state board to vote for a two-year delay. O’Connell authored the 1999 education reform legislation that established the exit exam requirement. Under that legislation, all high school students, beginning with the class of 2004, would be required to pass the exam in order to receive a diploma. 

Proponents of the legislation say the exit exam is necessary to ensure that students have learned basic skills upon graduation. But critics of the requirement say it is unfair to expect students who are disabled, English learners or from schools that are poorly funded or have unqualified teachers to pass the exam. 

Opponents in Florida have waged a successful legal battle in Florida against the exit exam requirement there, and a similar case is pending in Massachusetts. 

According to data provided by the California Department of Education, as of January more than 172,000 high school juniors—38 percent of the class of 2004—still had not passed the math portion of the exam. More than 86,000, or 19 percent of the class, had not passed the English portion. 

A recent study of the state’s exit exam by an independent research firm found that the requirement was forcing steady increases in standards-based learning but that students from poorer communities were less likely to pass the exam. Other groups, including Californians for Justice, have found similar disparities. 

Assemblymember Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) said O’Connell’s decision “showed good judgment” and that she hopes the state board follows his lead and votes for the two-year delay.  

“For me it’s important that we give our young people adequate opportunity to learn,” she said. “We are below the national median and we’re cutting in this current budget crisis. Before we hold our young people accountable for passing a high-stakes exam we need to hold ourselves as adults accountable to adequately fund education and give our kids a realistic opportunity to meet our expectations.” 

Hancock is currently sponsoring legislation that would eliminate the state exit exam requirement and leave it up to individual districts to decide whether they want to use the test as a criterion for getting a diploma.  

Ann Bancroft, spokesman for Secretary of Education Kerry Mazonni, who is a strong proponent for the exit exam and standards-based curriculum, said O’Connell’s move doesn’t mean the administration has cooled down its enthusiasm for the test. She said the governor supported legislation that called for the independent study on the exit exam and left it open for the board to decide whether to delay the full implementation based on the information from the study. “The most important thing to this administration and O’Connell is that the test remain legally sustainable so that it can help students improve, which it has done,” she said.