Thursday, April 27, 2006

Exit Exams

California is one of the states requiring that high school students pass an “exit exam” before getting a high school diploma. Exit exams, in this most recent incarnation, were instituted as a way to address the unpleasant and unpalatable fact that our high schools were graduating large numbers of functionally illiterate and ill-prepared kids. The exit exam by itself does nothing to increase the skill level of graduating students, of course — but it does serve to shine a bright light on those schools that underperform.

Now that we have some actual experience with the exit exam, many people are surprised and dismayed by the very high failure rates. People with children in the primary educational system tend to view these results differently than people who are primarily concerned about the quality of the education provided. Parents tend to be more concerned about their child obtaining a diploma; that milestone is perceived as a kind of certification that is a prerequisite for a career or for further education. It’s the certification that matters most to that audience. Employers (especially) and universities (one would hope) are actually more concerned about the quality of the education, as opposed to the certification. Prior to the requirement of an exit exam, the fact that a student graduated from high school told an employer or university almost nothing about the student’s actual learning achievements — if you could breathe and show up in class once in a while, you’d graduate (and I’m not even sure about these requirements). Now the situation is slightly improved — the student has to at least pass the exit exam. True, the student has four chances, and also true, the exit exam was dumbed down when the initial failure rates were embarassingly high — but still, at least there are some objective criteria being met by each graduating student, where there were none before.

The California Department of Education has a web site that you can use to get some interesting reports about the exit exam results. I selected a summary report for my county (San Diego County), and discovered that 32% of our students failed the math portion, and 31% failed the English language arts part; this is slightly better than the average for the state. In round terms, a third of our students are failing to pass the dumbed-down exit exam. To me (remember — I’m not a parent), this is a loud and clear message: our schools are failing to deliver a quality education! One interesting little factoid: I spot-checked a few San Diego County charter schools, and every one of them had failure rates below 20%, one was below 10%. Elsewhere I’ve read that the failure rates for private schools — which includes such things as Catholic schools in ghettos — is well under 10% on average. And this despite the relatively low funding per student in private schools (yes, there are the exclusive private schools with comparatively enormous budgets — but the overwhelming number of private students are disadvantaged kids attending religious schools). There’s a message in those numbers…and it isn’t the same message we hear from the NEA (or it’s local cell, the CTA).

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