High-stakes Exit Exams, and the Meaning of a High School Diploma

Much happening in California last week... a judge in Oakland has blocked the state from denying a high school diploma to seniors who failed to pass the California High School Exit Exam (or CAHSEE).

CAHSEE tests for eighth-grade level math and tenth-grade level English abilities. Students have up to six opportunities to take and pass the test.

The judge threw it out under the "equal protection" clause of the Constitution, supporting the plaintiff's argument that there is ample proof that students failing the exam were not taught the materials on the exam, and/or had math and English teachers who were not certificated to teach those subjects.

A fair argument, and I certainly believe that the school system failed these students. The first priority needs to be fixing these schools. Apparently there's lots of wrangling in Sacramento over that too. But let's come back to the issue at hand -- does giving them a diploma really solve anything?

What is the value of a high-school diploma, if after twelve years of education you can't converse in English at a 10th grade level or do math at an eighth grade level? Does anyone believe it's actually worth anything then? Who are we serving by propagating the lie that these kids are educated? Why are the kids suing to get a diploma -- if I were them, I'd be suing the state for big bucks for failing to provide them an education in the first place. Isn't that more important to their long-term prosperity than if they actually have the diploma?

I suppose in theory you need the diploma today to get some jobs or get into college. Is the intent to buy time, so that you can take more classes and hopefully catch up?

While I'm no big fan of standardized tests, I worry that the outcome of this will be to further lower educational standards, and devalue education in general, in our country.

There are no easy answers to any of these questions. It's a shame that education in our country has devolved into a choice between the lesser of two evils.

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