After a heated debate throughout the state, the California Department of Education (CDE) implemented the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) as a graduation requirement for all public high school students. The law first went into effect with the 2006 graduating class and has been used as a hard graduation requirement for every class since. While there are many differing opinions on the CAHSEE, on thing is clear, it appears to be here to stay.
The purpose of the CAHSEE is to provide a standard way of measuring student performance in public high schools all across the state. Since the CAHSEE is essentially a test of state academic content standards, and theoretically all public schools across the state should be teaching from the state content standards, the CAHSEE should be a great way to measure students from one school against students from other schools. This logic all sounds plausible until you start to take a look at the impact the exam is having on public education, particularly in traditionally low-performing schools.
Since scores on the CAHSEE impact everything from school funding to teacher and administrator job security, it is easy to see why it has had such a profound impact on how schools run. Teachers and counselors now place a huge emphasis on preparing students for the CAHSEE, often at the expense of time that could be spent preparing students to excel in college and beyond. The CAHSEE only tests state standards from grades 6-10, so the vast majority of the material covered on the exam is at a middle school level. Now of course it is important to have a strong foundation in the fundamentals of mathematics and english but not all students in high school need the level of review that they are being given. For many students the entire review process is unnecessary and robs them of valuable time they could be spending doing work that will actually prepare them for college.
This is especially the case for students at low-performing schools. Since many of their classmates struggle with these foundational areas the entire class must spend time reviewing this material. Not only are these students at a disadvantage by attending a low-performing high school in the first place, but the problem is now exacerbated by the fact that the administration in effect is allowing their peers to further hinder their progress. This creates the common problem that even the best students from poor schools are unprepared to succeed that the highest level in college and beyond. Does the CAHSEE really benefit our educational system when it inadvertently stifles the development of some of our brightest minds?
While the California High School Exit Exam certainly has its supporters who are quick to cite its positive benefits, overall, and especially for students in low-performing schools, it hurts education. This point is underscored by the fact that even the best students from under-performing schools often struggle when placed in more challenging and competitive academic environments. While doing away with the CAHSEE won't necessarily solve this problem by itself, it would certainly be a step in the right direction.