by Jim Sanders from the Sacramento Bee
Published Thursday, Jun. 18, 2009 - A California law requiring high school seniors to pass a high-stakes exit exam before receiving their diplomas is targeted for elimination, at least temporarily, because of the state's fiscal mess.
Democratic legislators are pushing the idea of lifting the mandate, arguing that it's not fair to expect schools hammered by budget cuts to meet every threshold they have in the past.
Controversy over the exit exam is part of a wider drive to give school districts more control over spending, a push that could provide discretion to shorten the school year as well.
A joint legislative conference committee voted along party lines this week, with Republicans opposed, to allow students to graduate in coming years without passing the two-part test of reading, writing and arithmetic skills.
The exam would continue to be administered in high schools to meet federal accountability requirements, but only 10th-graders would take it, and there would be no penalty for failure.
The proposal is expected to save less than $10 million per year statewide, unless schools supplement that sum by reducing or eliminating remedial programs for low-achieving students.
Jack O'Connell, state superintendent of public instruction, called the committee vote "a huge setback."
"We will do a grave injustice to our students if we do not ensure that they have the minimal skills needed to survive in the increasingly competitive global economy," O'Connell said in a statement.
Assembly Speaker Karen Bass countered that basing diplomas on the exit exam would hurt students affected by campus belt-tightening.
"Why would you hold kids accountable to a standard that we're not providing the resources for them to meet?" she said.
Opponents of the exit exam contend that not all students are good test-takers or receive equal instructional opportunities, and that an all-or-nothing test disregards student achievement in passing courses or completing research projects.
Shortly after joining the Legislature in 2004, Bass pushed unsuccessful legislation that would have made the exit exam one of "multiple measures" for determining proficiency.
The exit exam measures mathematics skills taught in eighth and ninth grades, and reading and writing skills from 10th grade.
Ninety percent of California's high school class of 2008 passed the exit exam by last May, but the success rate tends to be lower for minority groups – except for Asians – and for English learners, special education students and those from low-income families.
The California Teachers Association, among other groups, has supported efforts in years past to provide alternatives to students who can't pass the exit exam. Officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg supports easing the diploma requirement.
"How do you cut school funding and at the same time mandate that they continue to do everything that we tell them to do?" Steinberg said. "That just isn't fair."
Many students are likely to struggle with the exit exam because summer school, small class sizes, counseling and other key services are being affected by budget cuts, said Bob Wells of the Association of California School Administrators.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger does not favor eliminating the exit exam requirement, even temporarily.
"If any proposal comes down with that element, the governor will veto it," said Aaron McLear, Schwarzenegger's spokesman.
There was some confusion over precisely what the legislative conference committee approved.
A one-paragraph agenda synopsis released at the committee meeting Tuesday said that the proposal would "eliminate," beginning in 2009-10, the statute that ties passage of the exit exam to high school graduation.
The Department of Finance and top aides to Steinberg and Bass said Wednesday, however, that the intent is to suspend the mandate for three years. The Assembly and the Senate are expected to vote on the proposal next week.
Bass said a suspension would give schools some breathing room during the current recession and provide time to study the program's deficiencies.
Scott Plotkin, executive director of the California School Boards Association, said that schools would retain rigorous testing and academic content standards during any suspension.
"You're not turning your back on accountability or academic rigor," he said of the proposal.
But to Kirk Clark, of California Business for Education Excellence, passing the exit exam is a no-brainer to measure minimal workplace skills.
"I think it's a giant step backward," Clark said of the committee's vote.