The Exit-A-Sham

Supt. of School Jack O’Connell convened a hearing yesterday to allow critics of the California High School Exit Exam to suggest alternatives for the 90,000 California seniors who have not yet passed the high-stakes test now needed for a diploma.
Only problem is, O’Connell wasn’t even there (apparently he was in L.A. pitching preschool), and lacking any strong leadership from the state it is unclear whether reforms to the Exit Exam policies can be put in place in time to save the Class of 2006 from getting the shaft. The hearing at least gave critics — who by the way have been predicting this disaster for over two years — a chance to publicly air their views, but the whole thing seems like a bit of a sham. O’Connell is in a tough spot, no doubt. He created this exam as a legislator and now, as the top education official in this state, he is seeing some of the unintended consequences. But he must find a way to do the right thing here.
The problem with standardized tests like the Exit Exam is they serve little purpose but to point out existing disparities in the public school system, as students of color and those from poor homes are disproportionately affected. The really sad result is that many of them have seen their entire high school careers consumed by the fear of whether they were going to be able to pass this high-stakes test rather than spent enjoying the wonders of learning.
I covered this issue for the LA Times when it first began to boil into controversy in early 2004, and I spoke to many students, particularly students of color in towns like Fillmore and Santa Paula in Ventura County. The math portion of the test includes Algebra, but many students have to take the test for the first time before they’ve been taught Algebra. One student spoke to me about how frustrating it was to have to take the test two or three times before her classes even addressed the material on the test. Failing time after time created for her this cycle of failure that was tough to break even after she learned what she needed to know.
This is a broken system. And a broken approach to trying to produce thoughtful, critically-thinking, well-rounded members of society. Until we as a state can feel confident that all of our high school students are getting equal access to quality education, the Exit Exam is an Exit-A-Sham. O’Connell may not have thought ahead to an exit strategy, but we have confidence that he can come up with something.