Grading the test

Many students think it’s easy—but they also think it’s unfair

Photo By Tom Angel

Though two years have passed since I took the California High School Exit Exam, my memories of the test are remarkably clear. The musty heat of thousands of bodies crammed in the gym lingered heavy in the air. Administrators marched up and down the aisles between the tables like prison guards, maintaining order among the gathered masses. I watched a kid at my table stand up and slink out of the room, blowing off the exam entirely.

When the room finally calmed and the exams were distributed, I got my first look at the controversial test. As a person with a long-standing love of literature, I was instantly taken aback by the simplicity of some of the questions in the verbal portion. The test covered the very basics of grammar and critical reading, to the extent that anyone with a fundamental grasp of the English language would have no trouble scoring a passing grade. The mathematics portion of the test was similarly rudimentary, testing concepts such as long division and basic algebra.

I left the test feeling like I wasted a great deal of time confirming something that my high-school record already proved: I possess the skills required to earn a diploma. Why does the government feel the need to cumulatively test four years of education, when a much more accurate assessment can be found in an individual’s graded performance in his or her classes? Does the state not trust the judgment of the teachers? My concerns about the usefulness of the test were mirrored by many of my classmates.

“[The exit exam] was one of the easiest tests I’ve ever taken.” said Tony Vitt, a senior at Pleasant Valley. “If these are the standards for education, then I’m not looking forward to the future.” Other students I spoke to felt similarly, saying the exit exam was far too easy and a waste of their time.

Not all students thought the exit exam was fruitless, however. Wesley Ye, another Pleasant Valley student, told me, “I believe the exam covers essential skills people who want to graduate should have.” Though this opinion was by far the minority, the argument some make, and indeed the guiding argument for the existence of the exit exam, is that the test is a bottom-line determinant of a high-school student’s proficiency. If students pass, they have proved beyond a doubt that they deserve a high school diploma. Likewise, if they fail, they should not receive a diploma until they succeed in passing.

However, many students, including myself, believe there are some implicit problems in the structure of the exam. Some students simply do not test well. The environment in which the test is given is tense, crowded and uncomfortable. Students are given as much time as they require to complete the different portions of the exam, but most were eager to speed through the test as quickly as possible and return to their classes and friends. If a student was not a great test taker to begin with, the atmosphere in the gym was not exactly conducive to focus and subsequent high scores.

Most high-school classes are designed to base certain percentages of a student’s grade on a variety of factors, test scores being only one of them. The logic behind this is that it gives students who are poor test takers a chance to prove in other ways that they understand the material being taught. Though they will not receive high grades, students who perform adequately on homework and class projects and inch by on tests can pass their classes and graduate from high school. The exit exam does not take into consideration this kind of student, hurting an otherwise proficient person’s chances for graduation and future success.

The consensus among high-school students seems to be that the basic premise of the exit exam is flawed. No student can be accurately measured by a single test. If this were not true, then teachers would not be required to spend time evaluating students on many different learning criteria. As it is, the exit exam serves only to discourage students who are on shaky ground in regard to graduating and take valuable learning time away from other students.
—Matt Graydon

Matt Graydon (pictured), a CN&R intern, is a senior at Pleasant Valley High School and admits to being a high achiever and testing well.