Freshmen not ready to graduate from high school in California

California gave its new high school exit exam for the first time this year and newspapers across the state last week made much of the "abysmal" results: less than 45 percent of the state's 9th graders passed the test.  While a committee of teachers had recommended that the state set the passing score at 70 percent, the state board of education voted to lower the bar to 60 in English and 55 in math rather than allow even more students to flunk the test.

Given the nature of the test, however, the school board fears and journalistic alarms seem unwarranted.  Unlike the standardized tests around which the rest of California's  accountability system is built, the new graduation test is aligned with the state's academic standards. (The California Senate last week passed a bill that would replace off-the-shelf tests given in other grades with tests tied to the state's standards.) The English part of the high school exit exam covers material that students are expected to learn through the end of their sophomore year and the math test covers geometry, algebra, and statistics.  Expecting most students to pass a high school exit exam at the end of their first year of high school shows little faith in the capacity of those schools to teach students much - or indeed in the academic value added by the entire high school experience. (And what is a student who passes the state exit test in 9th grade supposed to do during the rest of his/her time in high school? As a perceptive English teacher put it to a newspaper reporter, "What are we going to have, Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average at the beginning of high school? This is not a minimum competency test. The whole concept behind standards is that you're setting a goal to reach." Given that freshman will have as many as eight more chances to pass this test, many believe that the bar was not set high enough.

"State says D grade gets a diploma," by Jessica Portner and Kate Folmar, San Jose Mercury News, June 8, 2001.

"'Abysmal' exit test results for 9th graders," by Greg Lucas, San Francisco Chronicle, June 7, 2001.

"California considering assessment role reversal," by David Hoff, Education Week, June 13, 2001.

One of the real challenges that California faces in implementing its results-based accountability system is ramping up math instruction so that more students can meet the algebra graduation requirement.  An understanding of algebra gives students the ability to solve real-life problems and serves as the foundation for higher-level math and science. Many education experts regard it as the indispensable entryway to higher education. Yet just 10 states presently require algebra for graduation.  An article in last week's Los Angeles Times looks at how California is facing this challenge.

"Stumped by the X factor," by Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times, June 6, 2001.