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.