Editor's Note: The following essay was selected by Bedford/St. Martin's of Boston and New York for the third edition of "California Dreams and Realities — Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers." Read about it in the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian

A Win-Win for the High School Exit Exam


Email Sandra Nichols

  "An idea is brewing. It is an idea that recognizes the value of a HSEE as the test that proves one has met the State's standard. It is an idea that does not demoralize the students who have little chance of passing."


he California High School Exit Exam has been long in coming and it seems to be having a difficult birth.

Yes, the test is now in existence. Yes, several versions have been taken by throngs of students, many having spent sleepless nights worrying about the outcome. HSEE preparation courses have sprung up. Teachers have developed new techniques to assist students specifically to pass this test.

Fact: Current high school juniors are slated to be the first ones who will have to pass the HSEE to earn their diplomas. These students are on the leading edge of a plan to make a diploma more meaningful and to some, more elusive.

Dilemma: Only 60% of the class of 2004 have passed the math section of the HSEE. English Language Learners, minorities and children in special education are having even more difficulty with the test.

Recently high school students have been expressing their reactions and concerns about this high stakes test. We have learned that there is as wide a variety of reactions to the test as the variety seen in the test scores.

Students who have passed both the Language Arts and Math sections want the test to count. They were prepared and feel they should be rewarded. If the test doesn't count they will feel cheated. Students scoring only points away from passing have their fingers crossed and are trying hard to raise their scores. One can only imagine how those students feel whose scores fall far below the passing level.

Teachers are trying to stimulate a student's "Can Do" attitude. It's that silly old ant in the song, trying to move a rubber tree plant. It's "Si se puede" repeated as a confidence building experience. Without the student confidence factor, what will happen to the student who just can not pass that test, or those who think they can't?

Now I was a California girl, raised and educated in the public schools. I graduated from high school during those golden years when California public schools were held in high esteem, being one of the best school systems in the country, if not top of the class! There was no high school exit exam other than the Real Life Test: Did the students love learning so much that they continued their education after high school? Did the students secure good employment? Did the students' education serve them well in terms of developing intellectual potential?

So here we are facing another case of the haves — those that have been prepared for the HSEE — and the have nots — the other ones.

An idea is brewing. It is an idea that recognizes the value of a HSEE as the test that proves one has met the State's standard. It is an idea that does not demoralize the students who have little chance of passing. It is fair. It is wise. And it can work.

Definition: a diploma represents that a person has successfully completed a particular course of study. A diploma is recognition for taking and passing the coursework defined by the State of California and the local school district. A diploma means you have the stamina to work persistently towards the goal of graduating.

We all know that some students do more than just take and pass classes. Some students master the subject matter. Some students excel and exceed the teacher's wildest expectations. The HSEE can be a tool that indicates their level of achievement. Passing both Language Arts and Math sections of the HSEE should result in a reward. Why not make that reward be a special statement of recognition on the diploma. THIS STUDENT HAS DEMONSTRATED COMPETENCE ON THE CALIFORNIA HIGH SCHOOL EXIT EXAM.

Now I don't care whether the recognition is a gold diploma or contains an affixed special seal of approval. However, it should be standard and recognizable to all, and at least as difficult to duplicate as a dollar bill. In this manner, the student who passes gets the reward. Potential employers will learn to use the HSEE if general education skills and the State standards are relevant to the line of work. Universities and colleges will recognize the difference between a graduate and a student who not only graduated but also demonstrated competency on the test.

Far wiser than dumbing down the test and far more fair to students who have passed the test, this proposal would be a win-win for all. I would think that the legislators would be pleased to have a meaningful test in place. Students who pass get the recognition they deserve. Students who do not pass the test are not kept from earning a diploma that recognizes success at that level. No student would be faced with denial of a diploma because of poor test taking skills.

I like it. I think we can do this. I think everyone can be happy about this one!

Sandra Nichols is President of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Governing Board serving 20,000 students in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. She is a Speech and Language Specialist with Santa Cruz City Schools, and was recently appointed by the Board of Supervisors to the Santa Cruz County Children and Youth Commission. The opinions expressed are those of Sandra Nichols and do not necessarily represent those of any school district, print publication or web site.

© Sandra Nichols 2003