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What would it be like to pass all your classes for four years in high school and then find out you couldn’t graduate with the rest of your classmates? That happened to nearly 42,000 California students this year. The members of the class of 2006 were the first to be required to pass the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE), which was designed to ensure that students who received diplomas actually learned at least eighth-grade level math and 10th grade English skills. Approximately 10 percent of this year’s seniors couldn’t pass the exam in time to graduate.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, about 86 percent of the district’s seniors passed the exam, while 2,564 students (14 percent) failed, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.

We asked L.A. Youth staff writers whether they thought the exit exam should be required for graduation:

My schools failed me

I passed the English section of the exit exam but not the math. I couldn’t understand the algebra section with questions about the x and y coordinates, the slope of a line and solve for x and y.

Math has always been a bump in the road for me. I just couldn’t get it, it’s not like I didn’t try. In elementary school I started having trouble with subtraction, then multiplication and division, but I passed math anyway. My problems with math didn’t catch up with me until 8th grade when I failed algebra. My teacher at George Washington Carver Middle School wasn’t getting the message across clearly. He was boring. Some kids would fall asleep in class. Then the same thing he taught in class was what he gave extra credit for. How could I do it? More than half the class failed. He was a white teacher in a class of Latino and African American students. He didn’t understand where most of these kids were coming from, from poverty. I couldn’t get help at home because my mom didn’t know how to do algebra, either.

In 10th grade at Reseda High School I had a good teacher. At the beginning of the year he gave us a pre-test to see where we were at. He would work on the parts that we were weakest in, then go on from there. I passed that class. But for Algebra 1B the next semester I had a different teacher and I failed that semester. I couldn’t stay after school to get help because I had to catch a bus from Reseda to downtown L.A. where I lived, which took two hours.

Students who can’t pass algebra need somebody to help them identify the root of the problem and work on it. For many of those who failed it’s because they couldn’t do basic math—if you can’t do basic math you can’t do algebra, geometry or any higher math. If they really want to identify the problem they would have to go back to second or third grade where basic math skills are taught.

I don’t think the exit exam should be required for graduation. It adds stress. You already have to have 230 credits for graduation. If you have those credits, you earned the right to graduate. But if they’re going to keep the exit exam, they should postpone it until the kids who are in elementary right now are in high school.
—Roshawn C., 19, Los Angeles Trade Tech College

It’s so easy it’s a joke

To most of the students at my school, CAHSEE is a joke. The week before the test, our teachers handed out English-language arts and mathematics study guides, which were books with about 100 pages of information on the test, how to take the test, sample questions and practice tests. Most of my friends just shoved them into the back of their lockers and forgot about them. Walking around school, I’d see these books sticking out of trash cans or lying on the ground.

Many saw the week of CAHSEE testing as nothing but a shortened schedule. The test was really easy; some people even raced each other through it and spent the rest of the time sleeping. When I took the test, some of the questions were so easy that I was surprised. Some questions involved reading a manual on a shower radio and answering troubleshooting and product questions. Aside from the fact that the answers were in the text, these questions test skills necessary in everyday life, like being able to understand directions or information in a product manual.

While my class hasn’t received its scores yet, I don’t know any junior or senior who hasn’t passed. Before I took the test, I asked one of my junior friends how it was. “Don’t even worry about it,” she responded. “It’s, like, impossible NOT to pass.”

I think that CAHSEE should be a requirement to graduate. What it tests is basic and necessary in the real world. Before students graduate, I think that they should know the difference between “there” and “their” and how to solve a simple equation. CAHSEE is important even for those who don’t plan on going to college. Because graduation means passing this test, a high school diploma means more than it would without the CAHSEE. A high school diploma should mean that you have a basic mastery of language and math.
—Angela Wu, 15, Walnut HS

It’s not fair for everyone

I think the exit exam is too broad. Whoever administrates it, they think this is what you should know. It’s like they’re saying I don’t care if you have a learning disability or if you just got to the United States from like Portugal, for example, and you don’t speak English well.

I saw a girl on the news standing in front of a courthouse crying because she had a 4.0 but couldn’t pass the exit exam. She said it was not fair. At first I thought, “let me hear the classes you had, because you probably have super easy classes.” But then I learned she was taking math and English and science. She had to learn something in those classes to get good grades. Then I thought, well maybe she’s a bad test taker, I know I am. I freak out.

To fix the problem, students should get a practice, like with practice SATs. It’s not fair just to give an exam. It’s like you worked your butt off for four years and then everything goes down to this one test.

Of course the problems with the exam go far beyond the students. There are many teachers who do not take teaching seriously and let students do mediocre assignments. I had a teacher who gave extra credit for non-academic work, how does that help a student? That’s not going to provide for the student’s future. I think that the teachers need to be evaluated by students who have really good teachers at least once a year. This way students can realize what they are missing out on.

Students may think that having easy teachers is convenient but this only hurts them. They are being deprived of essential teaching that is necessary for their skills to grow; skills to write effectively for college and at least basic math that anyone can use in the real world, like to buy groceries.

Another issue I have with the exam is that even special education students will have to take it to graduate. And what about children who recently immigrated to the California? Is it fair for them to take the exam? I believe that the administrators of this exam should take all of this into account. They cannot expect to just give an exam and have everyone pass it when students have so many different problems.
—Mar Velez, 17, Venice  HS

The test should be given in middle school

If a student can’t pass this test, I don’t think they’re gonna survive out there. Think about the people who worked so hard in high school—this is their chance to prove themselves. People can’t just fail their way through high school and then expect to graduate. I believe this test should be administered to graduate middle school, which would reduce the number of clueless students in high school.
—Victoria Imtanes, 15, Fairfax HS

The test will force schools to teach better

When I first heard about people suing the state because they failed the high school exit exam, I thought it was ridiculous. Students are given six chances to pass, and it covers basic reading, writing and math skills that are necessary for life after high school. Students with disabilities can be given extra time or a calculator, and English learners can request a translation dictionary. How could students fail such an easy test? The only explanation I could think of was that the students were too lazy in school, teachers were too lazy or a combination of both. But then, at an L.A. Youth staff meeting, I heard that some schools don’t provide a good education and lots of teens fail the test. I realized the purpose for this test: to stop under-performing schools from giving a poor education to students and rewarding them with a diploma.

That’s why even though I believe that high school students are burdened with enough tests, I do support this new test. This test will force teachers to teach properly so their students will be able to get a diploma. Likewise, students will be more motivated to learn in order to graduate. I respect those who work hard to pass the test but are unable to find the help they need, and this test will help identify and fix problems, such as bad teachers or the lack of homework help, instead of ignoring them. Also, students who are lazy and who do not care about school will not pass this test, and I do not think they deserve a diploma. What would be the value of a diploma to someone who reads at a fourth-grade level, does not understand fractions or cannot convey ideas through writing?

However, I do not think this test is useful in better-performing schools. My friends and I raced to finish the test and then texted each other on our cell phones afterwards for bragging rights. Maybe the state should waive this test for students who perform well on the CAT6 test or the SAT because they will definitely pass the easier CAHSEE. The money wasted to print tens of thousands of tests for students who can ace the CAHSEE can be used instead to fund programs at under-performing schools to help students who need it.
—Chris Lee, 16, Walnut HS

The Exit Exam isn’t the best measure of how much students have learned

What does this test really prove? Anyone could just memorize the answers, cram solely for the purpose of the test or learn the answers only to specific questions that are sure to be on the test. Similar to the SAT, this test proves nothing about a student. A student may be a terrible test-taker but an excellent orator or writer. There is no question that students should be learning, but tests are not always the proper way to judge what they know. I believe this test proves that public schools no longer value education. Students care more about passing the test, as opposed to learning the material. Therefore, education is seen as something annoying and bothersome, and not fulfilling. This test should be taken out of the school system and other effective methods should be experimented with. At my school, we have final projects that require us to present what we have learned over the course of the school year, and define in depth what our struggles and strengths were. We create Power Point presentations that are shown to our peers and teachers. This method is effective because students talk about their work, how they have overcome struggles and how they have grown as students and learners. This same system could be implemented into the public school system. It would take a lot of work and effort, but work and effort are the epitome of education.
—Lindsay Alston, 17, Wildwood School

Class of 2006 students who have passed the Exit Exam

By percent, as of March 2006

White: 96.9

Asian: 95.2

Economically disadvantaged*: 84.5

Latino: 84.3

African American: 83.2

English learners*:74.0

All California seniors: 90.4

*Includes students in ethnic-based categories

Source: California Department of Education