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High School Exit Exam Alternatives

What does a high-school diploma signify?  Does it mean that students have mastered language and math skills, or does it mean that students have merely registered enough seat time?  These are questions at the heart of the debate in California over the high-school exit exams that were created in the early 2000s ("Update high school exit exams - don't scrap them," The Sacramento Bee, Apr. 19).

The exams are at risk of being suspended for three years while teachers become more familiar with the new national Common Core standards.  I understand the thinking behind the moratorium, but I fear that the exit exams will be permanently eliminated. Critics of the exams argue that is good.  I disagree.

The most ardent supporters of exit exams are low-income and minority parents, who correctly believe that their children have benefited from higher standards.  In California at least, they are right.  Since their inception, scores on the exams have risen for all students, graduation rates have increased, and dropout rates have declined.  What's wrong with that?

Yet there is another possibility that should seriously be considered if exit exams are eventually abolished. New York State serves as a model.  It used to offer two kinds of diplomas:  the Regents Diploma for students headed to college and a Local Diploma for others.  (Unfortunately, the latter has been largely phased out except for a few groups of students.)

When I was in high school in the 1950s in New York State, the Regents Diploma was considered academic. The Local Diploma was considered vocational, or what I also recall as "commercial." I vividly remember having to take Regents exams in most of my subjects. They were a confirmation of what my teachers had taught.  Copies of past Regents exams were available in review paperbacks that I still have in my library.  But my teachers didn't teach to them because there were no high stakes involved.

I realize that times have changed.  But I believe more strongly than ever that vocational education be given far greater respect and status than it enjoys today.  I don't see why California and other states don't follow New York's original lead in this regard.  It would be an acknowledgement that college is not for everyone.  When students see a connection between what they are required to take for graduation and their interests, they are far less likely to act out or drop out.  What students headed for college need to know is not exactly what students headed for the workplace need to know.  Dividing the curriculum into two tracks would provide at least a minimal standard in the absence of exit exams.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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