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Open Access Publications from the University of California

IDEA is a network of UCLA scholars and students, professionals in schools and public agencies, advocates, community activists, and urban youth. IDEA's mission is to make high quality public schooling and successful college participation routine occurrence in low income neighborhoods of color. Research and advocacy are the tools IDEA uses to empower individuals, build relationships, and create knowledge for civic participation and social change. Linking a great public research university with committed educators and supportive community alliances, IDEA seeks to become the intellectual home of a broad based social movement that challenges the pervasive racial and social class inequalities in Los Angeles and in cities around the nation.

Cover page of MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS: CAHSEE Results, Opportunity to Learn, & the Class of 2006

MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS: CAHSEE Results, Opportunity to Learn, & the Class of 2006


California’s Class of 2006 is the first group of students required to pass the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE) in order to receive a diploma. CAHSEE asks students to show what they know by answering 72 multiple-choice English-language arts questions, completing 1 writing task, and answering 80 multiple-choice questions in mathematics. Students who get 60% correct on the English test and 44% in math by the end of their senior year get diplomas. The rest do not, even if they have passed all of their classes.

Although 20 states currently have an exit exam requirement, most allow students to demonstrate their proficiency through other means (other standardized tests or assessments, course grades and passage, culminating projects, portfolios of work, etc.) if they fail the test. No students are granted diplomas unless they meet clear standards. Because California has only a single measure of student proficiency, it is one of only eight states that automatically denies diplomas to students who fail the paper-and-pencil exam. The stakes for students are very high: students lacking diplomas are 75% more likely to be unemployed and are estimated to have 30% lower lifetime earnings than students with diplomas. These impacts are most severe for students of color.

This report presents new analyses of CAHSEE data released by the California Department of Education (CDE) on August 15, 2005 and other publicly available data about California schools. Section I shows striking connections between student performance on the CAHSEE and the resources and opportunities their schools provide. The schools where large numbers of students have not passed the CAHSEE are also schools with fewer qualified teachers, overcrowding, and multi-track schedules that limit learning time. Section II demonstrates that the CDE over-estimates the percentage of students who have passed either the ELA or mathematics portion of the exam by using a formula that excludes students who are more likely to fail the exam. The CDE leaves out of its formula more than 40,000 students who either dropped out during the 10th or 11th grade, or stayed enrolled but did not re-take the exam in the spring of 2005. Using a more accurate calculation based on the actual number in the Class of 2006 who, as 10th graders, were required to take the exam, we found that state-wide pass rates declined from 88% to 80% on the mathematics section, and from 88% to 81% on the Englishlanguage arts section. More than 60% of special education students and 40% of English Learners have not passed at least one of the tests. A smaller, but unknown, percentage of students (between 60-79%) have actually passed both tests and are eligible for a diploma. These pass rates would be lower if the calculation included all of the 9th graders from 2003. Section III raises important questions that cannot be answered by existing publicly available data, including the actual number of diplomas that will denied to students due to the CAHSEE requirement, the impact of the CAHSEE on dropout rates, and the relationship between passing rates on the CAHSEE and school conditions. These questions must be answered before the full impact of the exam can be understood.




On April 21, 2005, UCLA’s Institute for Democracy and Access (IDEA) published a policy brief raising a series of questions about California’s readiness for the California Exit Exam (CAHSEE). The policy brief challenged the conclusion of the state’s independent evaluator, Human Resources Research Organization (HumRRO), that California schools have made great progress in providing all students with opportunities to learn the material covered on the Exit Exam. IDEA researchers Holme and Rogers concluded that HumRRO’s own “data reveals that many California schools still are not adequately preparing students for success on the CAHSEE.” In correspondence in early May, HumRRO’s President Lauress Wise argued that the IDEA researchers misunderstood HumRRO’s data. The differences between HumRRO and IDEA researchers are not merely academic. The questions raised are of critical importance to current policy discussions about the implementation of the Exit Exam. In an effort to inform this debate, Holme and Rogers have re-examined HumRRO’s data. This new policy brief summarizes the evidence on the four questions of greatest interest to policy makers: 1) Do all California students have the opportunity to learn the material covered on the Exit Exam? 2) Are students in need of help being identified and supported? 3) How many students will pass the Exit Exam? 4) What is the impact of the Exit Exam on dropout rates?

Cover page of Policy Brief: High School Exit Exam Failure Rates and Opportunity to Learn

Policy Brief: High School Exit Exam Failure Rates and Opportunity to Learn


California has required students to take the High School Exit Exam since 2001. This exam assesses core academic skills in two areas: Mathematics and English Language Arts. To date, the results of the Exit Exam have been used as part of California’s accountability system. Current law calls for the state to withhold diplomas from students in the class of 2006 who do not pass either section of the Exit Exam. The law also states that it is the responsibility of school districts to “prepare pupils to succeed.”

Cover page of Policy Brief: A response to the HumRRO Evaluation

Policy Brief: A response to the HumRRO Evaluation


In 1999, the California Department of Education contracted with the Human Resources Research Organization (HumRRO), an independent evaluation firm based in Alexandria, Virginia, to perform annual evaluations of the quality and impact of the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). HumRRO’s Fall 2004 Report asserts that California’s high schools have made a great deal of progress in preparing students for the CAHSEE. It recommends that California deny diplomas to students in the Class of 2006 who do not pass the High School Exit Exam. Our review of HumRRO’s points to a number of problems with HumRRO’s analysis and conclusions. In fact, HumRRO’s data reveals that many California schools still are not adequately preparing students for success on the CAHSEE.