Test case

Critics say high-stakes exit exam shuts out students

Camille Upton, a math teacher at Las Plumas High School, serves as a proctor overseeing students’ taking of the California High School Exit Exam. As part of her studies for her master’s degree at Chico State University, Upton has developed a CD-ROM to help students study for the math portion of the exam.

Camille Upton, a math teacher at Las Plumas High School, serves as a proctor overseeing students’ taking of the California High School Exit Exam. As part of her studies for her master’s degree at Chico State University, Upton has developed a CD-ROM to help students study for the math portion of the exam.

Photo By Tom Angel

At Las Plumas High School in Oroville, the staff takes the exit exam very seriously.

Dinged last year by an unannounced attendance requirement of 95 percent, Las Plumas officials made sure it would not happen again. After first-period roll call, the staff phoned the homes of all absent 10th-graders. If they weren’t on their death beds, the county sheriff’s deputy assigned to the school went to pick them up and escort them to the test. By 9 a.m., test-taking time, 97.9 percent attendance had been tallied.

In teacher Camille Upton’s math room, students seemed prepared to try their best on the day-long test, but that didn’t mean they weren’t a little cynical.

“This inspires me—the California High School Exit Exam,” joked one young man.

“One of the questions should be, ‘Is this test important to you?'” offered another, wielding his No. 2 pencil over a bubble on the identifying questionnaire.

The California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) is the latest in the mix of standardized tests that have been introduced into the state’s public schools in recent years. But this one’s different. If you don’t pass, there’s one whopper of a punishment: You won’t get a diploma.

Critics of high-stakes exams say that to have one test determine a student’s fate is a misguided attempt at the politically popular goal of “accountability.” They say the tests take time and money away from teaching and unfairly jeopardize minority and disabled students.

“It’s an unfair method of making decisions,” said Monty Neill, Ed.D., executive director of FairTest, a Massachusetts-based advocacy group. “Focusing on just one standardized test is a bad way to improve teaching.”

George Young, president of the Chico Unified Teachers Association, agrees. “A kid could be a perfectly good student, work real hard and not be a good test-taker.”

But to Jack O’Connell, the state superintendent for public instruction, a strong measure of achievement speaks to the integrity of California’s public school system.

“I want it to be a challenging test, and I’m hopeful that all of our students will pass the test,” he said. “For many schools, it’s been a lowest-common-denominator syndrome. [But] if you challenge students, they will rise to the occasion.”

It’s a tough question. Should schools be churning out ill-prepared graduates, sending young people into the work world without basic reading, writing and math skills? What if their employer asks them where they got their diploma and the answer is embarrassing to local schools?

“The high-school diploma of the future will be worth more than the high-school diploma of today,” O’Connell said. “This is important to the business community. … These are minimum basic requirements. No longer is a diploma going to represent seat time.”

And since the test is based on state-set standards, he said, “if students are learning in their classes they will succeed on the high-school exit exam. If you’re teaching to the test, you’re teaching to the standards. Right now they’re one and the same.”

Nineteen states currently require exit exams of students graduating from public school, and another six, including California, will be implementing such tests within a few years.

California’s was supposed to apply to this year’s graduating seniors, the class of 2004. But the state Board of Education decided in July 2003 to take the legislatively allowed option of a one-time deferral, putting off the consequences of the exam to 2006.

The Legislature, which approved the exit exam idea in 1999, had commissioned an independent study that found that not all schools had aligned their standards to the exit exam. Some students were being tested on things they hadn’t even been taught. As a result, O’Connell and the board figured, it wouldn’t be fair to expect all students to pass so soon.

Now, this year’s sophomores will be the first to have their diploma-holding future potentially rest on one test.

The testing takes two days, reduced from the three initially planned. The test isn’t timed, which some educators believe should reduce the test-taking anxiety that causes some takers to “freeze up.”

In some states, lawmakers found a quick and easy way to boost their pass rates: Lower the threshold. After early results showed too-high failure rates, California changed the rules so students now must score 55 percent correct answers to pass the math portion of the test and 60 percent for the English-language arts. And they have as many as six chances to pass it.

A study by the Center on Education Policy found significant gaps in the pass rates of white students compared to both African-American and Hispanic students. Similarly, students from low-income families are far less likely to pass exit exams.

But one population that has elicited widespread concern, even among testing supporters, is students with disabilities.

Oakland-based Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) has sued the California Department of Education over the CAHSEE.

The nonprofit’s director of litigation, Sid Wolinsky, said the DRA was approached by “anguished” parents whose children have become depressed and even suicidal at the possibility of being denied a diploma after years of struggling through school. “Parents were moving out of state or enrolling kids in private schools they could not afford,” he said.

In Oregon, a similar suit was resolved after the state agreed to take the suggestions of a panel of national experts and allow some accommodations—such as calculators and having the test read aloud—for students with disabilities. “For many students, the accommodations level the playing field and allow them to take the test,” Wolinsky said.

“The largest single category of disability is dyslexia. … You could be Albert Einstein but keep reversing numbers even if you understand the theories,” he said, adding that the CAHSEE failure rate for special-ed students is 90 percent. “California does not allow an audio presentation of the test, which is stupid.”

The Department of Education says that students with disabilities taking the test must be allowed to use any accommodation, such as spreading the test out over more days or using a different testing environment, allowed in their Individualized Education Program (IEP).

Neill, of FairTest, said even a mainstream student could know the material and still fail. “A test is a fairly small collection of items,” he said. “If you’re unlucky you might know other parts of a broad array of knowledge but not the ones that are on the test.”

He believes the state is bowing to a business lobby that “wanted schools to in effect do their hiring sorting for them.”

“There are big economic damages to students when you deny them a diploma,” Neill said. And since most of those who fail are those who are not otherwise strong academically, the piece of paper could be the difference between passing and failing, Neill said, and between a living wage and a low-level existence that could include unemployment and even crime. “You’ve really cut off their opportunity.”

The delay in implementation bought time—time anti-testing advocates will use to try to convince legislators to reverse the high-school exit exam requirement. “It should stop. It should not be implemented in California,” Neill said.

After the implementation of the California High School Exit Exam results was delayed two years, some students are cynical that their scores will count.

Photo By Tom Angel

Cindy Kampf, director of testing for the Chico Unified School District, said even though the CUSD has a high pass rate, when she heard the implementation was delayed, “I was relieved in that it would give us additional time to make sure all the kids who are in special ed would have a chance to learn the standards.”

Even so, the test isn’t all that hard.

“It’s an eighth-grade standards test. That’s the scary part,” Kampf said. “I don’t think it’s too difficult for someone who should be receiving a high-school diploma.”

With the exception of Algebra I, almost all of the math questions are drawn from sixth- and seventh-grade standards. In fact, Kampf said, “You can pass the high-school exit exam without knowing algebra … if the other questions are all right.

“Most of our kids pass it on the first time,” she said. In the CUSD, which has fully credentialed teachers, 79 percent of last year’s first-time test-takers passed the math portion and 87 percent passed English-language arts.

Success on the test follows the usual socioeconomic trends. Chico’s “subgroups” have the most trouble, with 48 percent of English-learners passing the math portion of the test when it was given to 10th-graders in 2003. (Fifty-one percent passed English-language arts). That year, 53 percent of students who received free or reduced-price lunch due to poverty passed the math test and 67 percent passed language, while 86 percent and 92 percent of their counterparts passed, respectively. Fifty-two percent of African American students passed the math, along with 58 percent of those with Latino heritage. For language, the numbers were 82 percent and 67 percent. Students whose parents didn’t graduate high school had an especially low pass rate of 48 percent on the math portion and 65 percent on language.

Most kids should pass, test watchers agree. But it’s the kids who don’t pass who worry them.

“I don’t know that there will be a lot of them,” Young said, but it makes him think of systems in Europe where kids are tested and tracked toward success or mediocrity based on a single score.

Also, opinions are divided on how meaningful a measure are standardized tests.

“For politicians, this often is an inexpensive way to look like they’re doing something,” Neill said. While tests aren’t a huge part of what the state spends on education, he said, “The problem is, it’s wasted money for the most part.”

In the CUSD, each test costs $3 to administer, which the state reimburses, Kampf said.

Young, of the CUTA, said that when money is tight in a district, “I see nothing wrong with taking a moratorium from the testing. It doesn’t hurt the kids any.

“Kids are tested to death. There’s so much testing students, there’s not [enough] time to teach,” he said. Young is among educators who suspect there could be a hidden agenda to the high-stakes route. “Some think it is a way to back-door vouchers,” he said.

O’Connell is pushing for several state bills that would raise high-school standards even higher. “Historically there’s been a disconnect between higher education and high school,” he said. SB 1795 would require every student to pass the classes necessary to get into a four-year state college, even if they don’t plan on going to one.

Anti-test advocates say they have no problem with the idea of setting standards. “We’ve never said that kids who have not mastered the materials should get a diploma,” said Wolinsky, of the DRA. “But some children just can’t show what they know on a standardized test for whatever reason.”

“There should be reasonable expectations for a high-school diploma,” agreed Neill, of FairTest.

Instead of high-stakes tests, advocates recommend a portfolio system, in which a child’s body of knowledge would be judged by a teacher or panel of educators.

“Taken together, grades are better than a test score,” Neill said.

While some school districts get their test results and file them away, the CUSD actually uses them, including showing teachers how each of their students did. “There’s a definite value because we identify at that point the kids who are going to need some extra help,” Kampf said. “It’s a quick-and-dirty way to say how we are doing in reading and math.”

Convinced the CAHSEE is here to stay, test prep companies are popping up with products they say guarantee a passing score. One Texas-based company promises to reveal “CAHSEE secrets” such as “specific weaknesses never before discovered that you can exploit.”

Upton, the Las Plumas High School math teacher, is about to present her master’s project at Chico State: an interactive CD-ROM that’s a study guide for the math portion of the CAHSEE.

“Every year my students face this exam,” she said. “We hope that every time they go in they feel prepared to pass.” Sometimes, Upton said, it’s not that the students didn’t learn the material; they’ve just forgotten it, especially if they’re juniors or seniors being tested on sixth-grade material. The CD-ROM also gets them used to the multiple-choice format of the test.

Upton made up the questions herself after studying the appearance of the released questions.

Las Plumas offers a junior-year class that’s solely to prepare for the exit exam. Once a student passes, he or she can transfer to an elective course.

Many teachers’ greatest fear is that they’ll end up “teaching to the test.”

Upton said, “We still focus on the curriculum as if the exam didn’t exist.”

Nancy Negri, who chairs Las Plumas’ math department and is the test coordinator for the school, said this year the big push was simply to get the students in the seats. Las Plumas, identified by the state as a campus that needs to improve its performance, has raised its standardized test scores, boosted its graduation rate by 11.8 percent and become proficient in a number of measured areas. But when the school got marked down last year because only 89 percent of the students showed up on test-taking day, “nobody knew” it would count against them, Negri said. The new requirement led Las Plumas to add incentives for participation ($5 at the student store or cafeteria, or a movie ticket), have students and parents sign attendance agreements, and even sic the cops on them if those measures failed.

“I think students are learning how important this test is,” Negri said. “But the fact is, it’s the adults who care, and there’s no penalty for the student. … The top 20 percent of your student body is going to care because they care about any test they take.”

Negri’s feelings are mixed when it comes to the CAHSEE. “If you don’t set a standard, students won’t work to it,” she said. “But we have to recognize that not every student can pass. … There’s going to be a group that never will.”

Las Plumas has been focusing on getting students on board with the standards, which is harder there than in Chico because Las Plumas draws from eight feeder districts that aren’t unified in what they teach.

Fair-testing advocates such as Neill worry that some kids, convinced they’ll never pass the exit exam, will just drop out of school. In New York, he said, “schools are pushing kids out so they won’t be around to take the test.” And the kids who drop out are often African American, Latino and/or poor.

Or, conversely, kids who pass the test early on could figure they can kick back the rest of their high-school career knowing that they’ll graduate if they simply pass their classes. Some students choose to take the GED, which got harder recently when algebra was added to that test. But students who take the GED usually do so because they have other plans, such as getting into college early, Kampf said.

O’Connell said there’s been no evidence of the exit exam increasing dropout rates in California. In 2004, when seniors thought the test would count, “we did not see that at all.”

“I’m a strong believer in high expectations," he said.