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Decreed:
The End of the High School Education

Marian T. Horvat, Ph.D.

On May 12, 2006 a California judge struck down the State’s requirement that graduating seniors must pass a high school exit exam. What is this exit exam? Two years ago, facing inflated grades and declining standards, the State enacted a law requiring high school students to pass a test proving a basic knowledge of English and Math before they could be handed a diploma.

Students protest the CA exit exam

Students in Los Angeles protest the California exit exam as discriminatory
In effect, California school administrators were telling students: “It’s no longer enough just to fill a desk and put in your time. We will be testing to be sure you have learned something before you can receive a diploma.” It was a laudable effort to face lamentably low standards and rampant grade inflation in response to the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act.

The Class of 2006 was the first to be held accountable. However, with the arrival of Spring and graduation planning, it suddenly became news that 46,700 of the State’s 250,000 seniors (1 in 10) had still failed to pass the test and were not receiving a diploma.

Before I continue the story, let me give you a few facts about this test. The two-part test measures competency in 6th and 7th grade Math and proficiency in 9th and 10th grade English. The first test is administered in the sophomore year, and the students are allowed to take it over and over until they pass 44 % of the 80 questions on the Math portion, and 60 % of the 72 choice Language Arts questions. The questions are multiple choice. Students with learning disabilities are exempted from the test.

Further, special help was offered to students who failed the test: Teachers were trained in exam tutoring, students were given test preparation booklets, persons were paid to teach test prep classes before school, after school, and on Saturdays. There were even free “exit-exam camps” for anyone who cared to sign up for one and attend.

Sadly, what happened was quite predictable. A group of parents of the non-graduating students got together and decided to make a lawsuit. Instead of holding their children responsible for their actions, they accused the teachers of not teaching and the school administration of not caring about poor, minority, or second-language students. No, their children were not to blame for not learning the rudiments of English and Math in 12 years of schooling, it was the system…

The result of the lawsuit was a victory for the failing students and a defeat for the attempt to establish some accountability in the California secondary education system. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Robert B. Freedman issued a preliminary injunction against the exam, ruling that it is discriminatory. He said it placed an unfair burden on poor and minority students who attend low-performing schools. Because there are unequal schools, there is an unequal education. Consequently, “it is unfair” to expect students to pass the same exit exam.

The State immediately responded that it would appeal the ruling. In the meantime, the 46,700 students who failed the exit exam will receive diplomas.

I vehemently protest this sentence of the Judge. The exam was fair. What was unjust was the ruling that struck it down.

It is justice to give to each one his due, to confer honors on the deserving and punishments on the undeserving. Not only does this manifest that there are consequences for actions, but it is essential for the life of any well-ordered society.

A Diploma and graduation cap

A diploma loses its significance when given to both the learned and the ignorant
A person who proves he can pass a test deserves the honor of receiving a diploma. Passing the test signifies an achievement, which the diploma recognizes. As such, the diploma has meaning. It would be an injustice for the deserving not to receive a diploma.

But it is also an injustice for them when diplomas are given to those who do not merit them, those who did not learn enough to be considered educated. It inflicts a personal loss by demeaning their efforts and work, and a material loss by debasing the reward. The diploma, in effect, becomes meaningless to both the learned and the ignorant.

No, it’s not fair to the students who studied and learned, and not fair to the ones who didn’t.

What will be the consequences for the school district. Unless there’s a penalty with teeth for not passing the exam, why study? The learned and the ignorant will have the same diploma. In the long run, this decree means the end of a reputable high school education in California. It installs the dictatorship of ignorance.

Posted May 17, 2006

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