Tripped up by high school exit exam? You may get to graduate at last

Grads file in at the Patterson High centennial graduation in May. The district estimates about 10 students did not join the group solely because they did not pass the high school exit exam.
Grads file in at the Patterson High centennial graduation in May. The district estimates about 10 students did not join the group solely because they did not pass the high school exit exam.

Tens of thousands of young adults in California denied graduation over the last decade solely because they failed the high school exit exam are due a diploma. But for young adults whose class walked without them, unable to join the military and denied job after job, the chance for a belated graduation could seem bittersweet.

“It was huge for the students,” said Ceres Unified Superintendent Scott Siegel, who estimated about a dozen students every year in Ceres passed every requirement except the exit exam. “There were major efforts to try and get kids over this hurdle,” he said.

Senate Bill 172, authored by state Sen. Carol Liu and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September, suspends the non-Common Core high school exit exam for three years while the state decides what comes next. An emergency amendment removed the requirement for 2015 grads, allowing the few who otherwise qualified to go on to college.

But in its final form, the law also eliminated the exit exam requirement for all preceding years, erasing the test as if it never existed.

“It’s pretty amazing. It’s like – ‘Do-over!’ ” said Karen Williams. Williams is executive director of Learning Quest, a nonprofit that provides reading and math instruction to adults. “We're all still in shock, a little bit, that they did away with it. I think it's going to help a lot of people,” she said.

Options for those without a diploma are so limited, some of the center’s clients say they had to lie on applications, she said. Even community colleges were beyond reach for them from 2012 until this year, because no financial aid was available without a diploma.

“There was this window of time where you were stuck. You couldn't go to college. You couldn't get a job. You were just stuck,” Williams said.

There were people who had kind of given up; now they can go on.

Karen Williams, Learning Quest executive director

“In Carol’s mind, it was a fairness issue,” said Robert Oakes, Liu’s legislative director. “The discussion was, if somebody wants to move on with their lives, they should be able to,” Oakes said Wednesday.

It is possible that no exit exam will be the recommendation going forward, or a new test could be developed. “It’s wide open,” Oakes said.

The old test does not align with the Common Core State Standards, he said, adding, “The high school exit exam dates from an earlier era. It’s the general consensus of the educational community it is no longer relevant.”

Minnesota and Mississippi ended their exit exams this year and Alaska, Rhode Island and South Carolina canceled the tests for the Class of 2016, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. Only 20 states, by the center’s count, still require passing a proficiency exam to graduate.

“Most of the students who did not earn diplomas because they did not meet the (California High School Exit Examination) requirements were English learners. Most of these students would look for jobs right after high school and would not have time to continue to try and pass the CAHSEE,” said Scott Weimer, executive director for curriculum and instruction for the Merced Union High School District.

The sprawling Merced district, which serves more than half the county, has identified 117 students in the past five years denied graduation solely because of the exit exam, 74 percent of them English learners.

Modesto City Schools, serving more than half of Stanislaus County’s high school students, also found English learners the most likely to keep trying but never make it.

“Students who did not earn a diploma due to not passing the CAHSEE were often English learners, new to the United States, who had not yet acquired all the language skills needed to be successful,” said Modesto City Schools Superintendent Pam Able. Her district has identified 248 students since 2010 who will qualify for diplomas under the new law.

I don’t think we should go back and say, ‘Why did we do that in the first place?’ The idea of an exit exam is not a bad one.

Scott Siegel, Ceres Unified superintendent

CAHSEE (pronounced “Casey”) was rolled out in 2004 and became a statewide absolute beginning with the Class of 2006.

To be sure, it was not a high bar. It tested junior high-level math and English, mixing in a few high school English skills. Passing took a 55 percent score in math and 60 percent in English. Most students (83 percent) passed it as sophomores. Those who failed could retake the test up to seven times over the next two years.

About 250,000 students since 2006, roughly 6 percent of high schoolers, failed to pass the test by the end of senior year. Most of those gave up and dropped out before completing the necessary classes, and this legislation does nothing for them.

Only a relative few persevered to the end despite repeatedly failing the exit exam. Numbers gathered by area districts suggest roughly 350 young adults in Merced County and 1,200 in Stanislaus County could qualify for the diplomas out of about 29,000 who never passed the test.

The figure does not include special education students, fewer than half of whom passed the test. Students with significant disabilities qualified for waivers, but many districts gave a certificate of completion to those students, not diplomas, and not all let them walk at commencement.

In Patterson Unified, 63 students over the last five years finished all their high school requirements but failed to pass the exit exam, said Superintendent Phil Alfano. Those students struggled on many fronts, he noted, with few taking the college-prep classes needed to go on to a four-year university.

The Stanislaus County Office of Education, which serves expelled and incarcerated teens, found 142 in the past six years from among their students who now qualify for diplomas.

30,000Estimated number of students statewide barred from graduating solely by exit exam score, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing

Beyond the personal cost to those who could not pass the exit exam, taxpayers paid dearly as well. Schools poured money into test-prep efforts.

“As an administrator it’s frustrating. We tried so many things – classes, tutoring, Saturday school,” said Turlock Unified Superintendent Dana Trevethan. Turlock High narrowly missed being labeled as one of the state’s lowest-performing schools because of its numbers not passing the exit exam, she said.

The Turlock district identified 250 students who qualify for the delayed diplomas.

Waterford Unified, a rural district in eastern Stanislaus County, started with nearly 30 percent of students failing a first try at the test. Over the years, that was whittled to just over 10 percent, with all but a few students passing by the end of senior year. The district followed up with the stragglers and most passed the following year, said Superintendent Don Davis.

“Over the years, we committed significant resources for CAHSEE remediation, to help the struggling student clear this hurdle,” Davis said.

Superintendents said they will send information to the students’ last known address, but most are counting on potential qualifiers contacting them to get their diplomas.

“(The Merced Union High) board will still need to adopt new policies to award these diplomas and is expected to do that before the law takes effect on Jan. 1, 2016,” Weimer said via email. “After Jan. 1, students who did not receive their diploma because they had not met the CAHSEE requirement may go to the school they graduated from to receive their diploma and updated transcript.”

In Ceres, administrators are seeking past students, Siegel said: “We're trying to contact our young adults now and we hope to be able to issue diplomas shortly.” Former Ceres High or Central Valley High students who think they qualify can contact their school, he said, “But we will also be trying to contact them.”

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin


Students of the Class of 2006 and on will need to contact their high school or district office to verify they have passed all other criteria to graduate and arrange to get their diploma and updated transcript. The law takes effect Jan. 1, 2016. Here are districts that gave specific contact information:

ORESTIMBA HIGH, Newman: Call Kelli Sharpe at 209-862-2916.

MERCED UNION HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT: Call individual high schools (Atwater, Buhach Colony, El Capitan, Golden Valley, Livingston, Merced, Sequoia, Yosemite).

CERES: Contact Ceres High or Central Valley High directly.