Commentary Exit Exam is Misguided Educational Policy By KEN STANTON

Friday January 20, 2006

Requiring students to pass the California High School Exit Examination in order to qualify for a high school diploma is a misguided educational policy. In his Jan. 6 letter to the state Board of Education, California Superintendent of Schools Jack O’Connell said, “Some schools pushed each and every student to succeed while others, wallowing in the status quo of low standards, handed out diplomas to any student who simply put in seat time.” According to O’Connell, the goal of requiring seniors to pass the exit exam is to “hold every school in California accountable for improving student achievement...” 

The method that has been selected to achieve this goal is the same method that has been rejected by American industry. After years of failure to compete in the global marketplace, the American automobile industry achieved major successes by replacing traditional quality control methods with continuous quality improvement. In quality control, products are inspected after they come off the assembly line; those that fail to pass inspection are either repaired or discarded. The result is considerable waste of time and resources. In continuous quality improvement, the process is designed at the front end to assure that failures are minimal or nonexistent. Since the 1970s, this method has been applied with impressive results to a wide variety of manufacturing and service enterprises. 

Applying traditional quality control methods to public education, in order to hold schools accountable for improving student achievement, means that students who fail the exit exam will either be repaired—by allowing them to take additional remedial classes until they are able to pass the exam—or discarded. As the automobile industry learned at great cost to private investors and the national economy, this wastes time and resources, and ultimately leads to failure. In this case, unfortunately, much of the burden of this failure will fall on the students we have failed to educate. In effect, the high school exit exam will hold students, rather than schools, accountable for our failure to improve student achievement.  

Superintendent O’Connell promises that the state will provide “sufficient funding to ensure that students who do not pass the exam—24 percent of all tenth graders who took the exam in 2005—will have an opportunity to take remedial classes in order to pass the exam. Unfortunately, remedial programs are not particularly effective. According to the independent analysis commissioned by the state, “about half of those re-tested members of the Class of 2006 still have not passed.” In effect, the state is planning to create a large pool of citizens who lack a high school diploma after 12 years of public education. 

If the funding for remedial programs is actually made available as promised, it will divert resources from schools that need these funds to educate students in basic math and English in the first place. According to the independent analyst’s report, “Minority and disadvantaged students in schools where there were high concentrations of such students had lower passing rates than their counterparts at other schools.” Clearly, it is the quality of the schools, rather than the quality of the students, that makes the difference in providing a good, basic education. A more economical use of the promised funding would be to improve the quality of education in schools with inadequate resources. 

More likely, however, in spite of the genuine good intentions of advocates for the high school exit exam, the additional funding for remedial education will not continue for long. When the old state hospitals for the mentally ill were closed in the 1960s, advocates for deinstitutionalization promised that funding would follow these patients into the community. After a brief existence, comprehensive community mental health centers disappeared from most communities in the state, and the mentally ill were left to fend for themselves. In the case of high school students who fail the exit exam, we may hope the money for remedial education will continue to be available, but it is not likely. 

Denying a high school diploma to students who attend school for 12 years in good faith, and who trust that their efforts will be rewarded by a good education, is a misguided educational policy. We need a school system that is capable of providing a basic education to more than 76 percent of its students. After six years in operation, the high school exit exam has demonstrated that it is not an effective means for achieving this goal. 


El Cerrito resident Ken Stanton works in Berkeley as a registered nurse.