Do 'Exit Exams' Make Diplomas More Meaningful?

A California judge recently struck down a state law requiring high school students to pass an "exit exam" before graduating. A group sued the state to suspend the exam requirement after thousands of students failed. The fight about this issue mirrors a larger nationwide debate over how to make a high school diploma more meaningful.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Madeleine Brand.

California's high school exit exam is in limbo. It was supposed to be a requirement for graduation but last week a judge said thousands of high school seniors who failed the test could receive their diplomas any way. As NPR's Elaine Korry reports, the fall out from this legal challenge could reignite the debate over exit exams across the country.

ELAINE KORRY reporting:

About half the states either already require high school students to pass an exit exam or they're headed in that direction. It's part of a national push to insure that seniors leave twelfth grade prepared for college or the work place. Andrew Rotherham, co-director of the think tank Education Sector says California's recent experience could either help or hurt the movement to improve high schools.

Mr. ANDREW ROTHERHAM (Co-Director of Education Sector and member of Virginia State Board of Education): If it emboldened just a series of lawsuits around these exams that would be a time consuming distraction from the more core issues. On the other hand one would hope it would embolden states, for example this is what Virginia has done, to really start to put in place support for kids who are in danger of not passing to get these kids over the hump.

KORRY: That was the issue in California, whether the state had done enough to get its most vulnerable students over the hump. A judge said no, ruling that tens of thousands of English learners and low-income minorities were stranded in inferior schools with few resources. Judge Robert Freedman said as long as that's the case, California's exit exam discriminates. Jack O'Connell, Superintendent of Public Instruction insists the exam is not meant to be a punishment but a tool to identify those very students who need help.

Mr. JACK O'CONNELL (State Superintendent of Public Instruction): If we hold our school system accountable then we will get more attention, more focus, more resources to that group of students. If you exempt any group of students; we won't be doing our job.

KORRY: O'Connell says the state does a disservice by handing out diplomas to kids who don't have basic skills. Attorney Arturo Gonzalez sued the state on behalf of a group of students and their parents. He says until the playing field is even O'Connell is asking a group of mostly poor black and Latino students to pay for a broken system. Gonzalez says he's all for school accountability but he wants to know who's accountable for the adults, the teachers, and administrators who failed these kids.

Mr. ARTURO GONZALEZ (Attorney): I agree that we've got serious problems with our public schools but this is not the solution. If you tell fifty thousand kids that you're not going to graduate; that's not going to make our public schools any better. That's not going to make a high school diploma any more meaningful.

KORRY: The debate over exit exams has played out across the country in recent years. Often with predictions of high failure and drop out rates. Jack Jennings, President of the Center on Education Policy says the dooms-day scenarios have failed to materialize.

Mr. JACK JENNINGS (President and CEO of Center on Education Policy, Washington, D.C.): There were student demonstrations in Massachusetts, school boards were saying that they weren't going to implement what they call the MCAS exam and the state stuck to its guns and now it's accepted as part of every day life. The same thing happened in New York.

KORRY: School districts there even threatened civil disobedience. But says Jennings, every high school student in New York now routinely takes an exit exam and the pass rates keep going up. He's not surprised that more recent legislation is also being tested in the courts. On Monday a judge in Arizona refused to suspend its exit exam for this year's graduating class. Advocates there say they'll continue working to overturn the test.

Elaine Korry, NPR News.

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