Sunday, January 21

Reform education, not exit exams

The Los Angeles Times recently reported that over 100,000
teenagers in the high school class of 2004 failed both sections of
the new California High School Exit Exam at least twice, bringing
into question the equity of such a test. Is it fair for the state
to impose such high standards on public high school students? I
think yes.

Last year less than a fourth of Santa Ana High School students
passed the math portion of the exam and only 40 percent passed the
English portion. Similar statistics state-wide have prompted many
teachers, students and parents to call for the elimination of the
exam or at least its replacement with a less difficult test. They
claim the test is unfair to poor and minority students and that it
sets an unreasonable standard for students.

Unlike the SAT I, which has been criticized for its useless
assessment of students’ abilities to solve convoluted logic
problems and abstruse word analogies, the California Exit Exam
tests knowledge and acquired skills, not some abstract and
indefinable principle like “aptitude.” In addition, the
exit exam cannot be “coached” in the manner that pricey
services such as Kaplan and the Princeton Review prepare students
for the SAT I, thereby eliminating any concerns over a financial

Akin to the increasingly accepted SAT II subject tests, the
state exit exam sets an accurate standard of high-school
achievement. It tests only the most rudimentary of skills that
should be acquired in high school, such as reading comprehension,
grammar, fractions and basic geometry. It sets a clear, uniform
rubric with which to standardize our decrepit school system.

With proper standards teachers can build their curriculums
around imparting the necessary skills and knowledge onto their
students. One common complaint from failed test-takers is that they
weren’t taught the tested material in school. Here,
inadequate schooling, not the test, is at fault. Blaming the test
for one’s failure is like blaming the service station for a
failed smog check; it ignores the underlying problems within the
“schooling vehicle.”

I believe that the state teacher’s union has demonstrated
this fundamental error in their protest of exit exams. Teachers now
carry the burden of meeting a set educational standard. They are
obliged to cover a set criterion of material in order to ensure
that students pass high school. Thus, they have become just as
accountable for their performance in class as their students.
Imagine that: a system in which the teachers’ interests are
inextricably tied with that of their pupils. For the teachers union
it would be much easier to simply abolish the test than to reform
its teaching methods from the ground up to meet the challenge posed
by this new system.

The College Board’s Advanced Placement tests are good
examples of how this system can succeed. Each May students enrolled
in AP classes take a standardized subject test in order to obtain
college credit for their coursework. To help AP teachers plan their
curriculum, the College Board fashions them with a list of topics
that are likely to be on the exams. The teachers then devote their
class time to ensuring maximal coverage of potentially tested
material. As a result, the AP program has been hugely successful in
providing high school students with a chance to earn college credit
for their efforts. There’s no reason why this can’t
work for regular high school courses.

Granted, there are other factors at work, such as the dwindling
state budget and the lack of qualified teachers. However, easing up
on the test’s difficulty or eliminating it will not address
any of the system’s underlying problems.

California has an obligation to produce students who are
adequately prepared to either enter the work force or move on to
college. If the test is an accurate measure of what students should
come away with in high school, which I’m certain it is, then
the state has no obligation to pass someone who has failed it.

It isn’t the test that must go, but rather the
lackadaisical teaching. Continued implementation of the exit exam
will only serve to remediate this.

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