California is touting a big number this week: 95. That’s the percentage of students who passed the state’s high school exit exam, a requirement for graduation. It’s 4.6 percent higher than in 2006, when the exit exam requirement began, and includes notable gains among the African American and Latino populations. It’s a number worth touting.
Or is it?
Students get their first crack at the exit exam in 10th grade, which means the competencies and standards from which the exam is based are not at the 12th-grade level. If students fail the exam their first time, they have seven more opportunities to pass in their junior and senior years.
Even more discouraging: California also offers a separate, voluntary Early Assessment Program, which was designed by California State University to test students’ readiness for credit-bearing, college work. Last year, just 23 percent of students were deemed college-ready in English and 15 percent in math. (Because it is a voluntary assessment, it is important to note that about 80 percent of 11th-graders participated.)
In other words, some of these students who are demonstrating competencies in reading, writing, and math in order to pass the California exit exam are actually unable to enter credit-bearing, first-year college courses. (Could it be because the exit exam is based, at most, on 10th-grade standards?) Although deemed proficient in high school, these students will likely waste time and money in remedial courses that will not count toward their degrees.
California isn’t alone. The ACT, which released college-ready data this week, reports that 75 percent of students nationwide are not ready for the rigors of college coursework in English, reading, math, or science. (Again, important to note that these findings are based on the 52 percent of graduates nationwide who took the ACT; just 25 percent did in California.)
Percentage of students who are college-ready, according to ACT data.
So while Tom Torlakson, California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, may want to hype the 95 percent pass rate on the exit exam (“When 95 percent of California students are hitting the mark—despite the tremendous challenges we face and the work we still have to do—there’s an awful lot going right in our public schools,” he proclaims in a news release), he and other education leaders across the country should be looking a bit deeper. As Education Sector analysts point out, proxy measures based on exam scores do not paint a complete or accurate picture. In Ready by Design, Anne Hyslop and Bill Tucker show how a California school with seemingly high performance (based on student test scores) really has much lower graduation rates and downright depressing college-going rates.
It’s not enough to graduate our nation’s students. A high school diploma gets our students nowhere in the 21st century. Graduates need to be able to enter credit-bearing, college work—not remediation—as soon as they step off that high school stage. In just six years, two-thirds of American jobs will require a postsecondary degree. Sending high-schoolers off unprepared will not meet those demands.