By Denise Hertzog Pursche.

In my prior post about “Why High School Exit Exams, Not Student, Are Worthless, I talked about my own experience as a foster child and how the high school exit exam made an impact on my life. Then in Part Two, I discuss the findings and research about high school exit exams and why we should remove the exit exams as a requirement to receiving a high school diploma. In Part 3 of “Why High School Exit Exams, Not Students, Are Worthless”, I talk about the recent discussion with the California Department of Education reconsidering the value of a high school exit exam for California Students.

Will the California Department of Education and the California Legislature decide to remove the California High School Exit Exam? Or, will the high school exit exam make a comeback pending a decision to align it to the Common Core? Only time will tell.

Why High School Exit Exams, Not Students, Are Worthless: Part Three

Recently, California Department of Education along with the California Legislature, suspended the CAHSEE, (California High School Exit Exam). “Senate Bill (SB) 172 suspends the administration of the high school exit examination and removes the high school exit examination as a condition of receiving a diploma of graduation or a condition of graduation from high school for each pupil completing grade twelve for the 2015–16, 2016–17, and 2017–18 school years”.

As Michael Mahoney, a Sacramento high school English and journalism teacher who lives in Sacramento wrote in a recent op-ed, entitled “Goodbye and good riddance to California’s high school exit exam. said, “Who benefited most from the untold millions the state spent to purchase and administer the old exit exam? Say Mahoney, “The answer?” Well, “that would be the testing company.”

According to this article in the Hechinger Report:

Some experts are hopeful that high schools will raise standards enough to graduate students who are college-ready. Forty-four states plus the District of Columbia have now adopted the Common Core education standards, in principle to sync up what students learn in high school — and the tests they take to prove it — with what awaits them at the college level.

“We need a test to give educators, students and families an honest indication of whether [high school students] are on track to meet postsecondary demands”, says Linda Noonan, executive director, Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education

However, back to the Hechinger Report:

 The debate over Common Core-aligned tests may soon be moot. Under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, states can apply to use college entrance exams to assess high school achievement. So far, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, and New Hampshire have opted to use the SAT for this purpose, and Arkansas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming the ACT. Although this doesn’t solve the problem of readiness, states and colleges consider these tests a better gauge of the sort of work incoming students can do.

No matter what a state department of education might decide about the usefulness of a “high school exit exam”, the decision to use an exam for the purpose of “assessing high school achievement” and “awarding a high school diploma” is perhaps the biggest civil rights issue of our time.

And, that’s not an understatement when you consider 50-70% of many students across America are failing the Consortium state exams (PARCC/SBAC), with many of these students from below the 50% of median parental income level, failing in epic numbers.

Here’s what the State of Florida has decided to do concerning “high school exit exams” and the idea of “different levels of designation” for receiving the all elusive high school diploma.

Christy Kutz, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching says:

A standard diploma is what students need to be able to pursue a postsecondary career. A GED opens opportunities for postsecondary. The certificate? It’s a certificate, but it doesn’t open as many doors. A General Educational Development, or GED, diploma is regarded as an equivalent of a high school diploma. The same cannot be said for a certificate of completion.

However, it is my suspicion that the California Department of Education has already made up its mind about the worth of the high school exit exam and based on these conversations, I fully expect the exit exam is not on its way out, but will be reinstated at some time in the future, either via SAT, ACT, or a consortia exit exam.

Though several people I spoke with in the department have touted the statement, “we agree with you about the high school exit exams”, I am not so convinced. I’m not so sure that they do indeed agree that the “high school exit exam” creates special circumstances for minority students, foster kids, ELL, students-at-risk, and perhaps violates a student’s civil rights by denying their “diploma” based on a test score.

I guess time will tell and I sure hope I’m wrong, but perhaps the consideration as some states have done, I wonder if the CDE will award a “diploma like document” if students fail the exam? Though I believe these types of documents also create “special circumstances for ELL, foster kids and students-at-risk”, some states offer “certificates of completion” rather than an actual “high school diploma”, if a student fails to pass their high school exit examination in the 12th grade.

How those “levels of designation” don’t violate students’ civil rights no matter their income level, and especially for students below the 50% median parental income level, is beyond me?

Where are the civil rights organizations and the civil rights attorneys on this issue, especially when the scores are highly correlated to “economically disadvantaged students”?

Will the CDE recommend a new exam created by the Smarter Balanced to be embedded in the yearly state exams for 11th and 12th graders, and/or recommend the SAT, ACT, be used in place of the “exit exam”? Or, perhaps the CDE will recommend another exam created by the Consortium to be devised, much like the CAHSEE that has been in place for many years?

How can a state department of education looking at the test scores from poor performing schools and the test scores from schools in more affluent areas, then make the decision to use any exam to evaluate the worthiness of their students to attend “college or career”?  Or, how can they decide to use of a designation of “completion” and how can that be used without violating a students’ civil rights? I just don’t’ get it?

Here’s Matthew Johnson, Frederich High School Teacher, in Frederich County, Maryland, speaking to his county board of education about the policy designation for the PARCC exam and the “Scarlett letter designation” of “not college ready”, or “career ready”.

From time to time, Arne Duncan and many other education reformers like to utter the words, “level the playing field”, as it relates to students in K-12 schools. And, I say, what a better opportunity to create a “level playing field” by removing the “exit exam” as a criteria to graduation.

Just think about the possibilities of a student receiving a diploma unimpeded by the score on a “high school exit exam” and instead allowing students the ability to graduate free of the “restrictions” placed on them? No matter how economically disadvantaged, or how affluent a student’s parental income, they could simply “do the work” and “meet the requirements” to receive their high school diploma.

Yes, the possibility to simply attend regularly, do the work, and get the grades, and graduate unimpeded by the score on a high school exit exam, could open the door of opportunity, rather than the “school to prison pipeline” door.

Think of the possibilities of leaving the student with an opportunity to move onto adulthood with a “clean slate”, as if they have crossed the line from being shackled by their parent’s income level and can now make adult-like decision about their future. Just think of the possibilities for students to create the life they choose, not one chosen for them based on their score on an “exit exam”.

Yes the possibilities of the student to graduate unimpeded by the scores on an exit exam, once that student has graduated high school, they could simple decide how they want to live their life. They could make their dreams come true by pursuing with adult like decisions their future, just like the way it used to be!

As Ethan Young, a Tennessee high school student said in November, 2013, to his board of education, “If everything I have learned in high school is a measurable objective, I haven’t learned anything.”

Yes, it’s seems legislatures, governors, lawmakers and businesses are more interested in a score on a “high school exit exam” and placing the blame on students, parents, or teachers, as if that is somehow helpful.

I just ask “helpful” to whom?

It seems the test scores are used as an “aha moment”, as if to say, “look over there, that is where the problem lies”, rather than allowing the student the opportunity to leave high school unimpeded by some exam as if the exit exam was an indicator of a “students abilities”, or an indicator of their “God-given talents”, or an indicator of their “worth as a human being”?

In the meantime, the California Department of Education (CDE) is asking for parent feedback concerning the return of the high school exit exams. I am begging parents to overwhelm the California State Department of Education with your comments, either via a survey, or public comment, and provide feedback about the usefulness of the “high school exit exam” or any exam that “designates” a student as “college” or “career ready”.

You can contribute in one of two ways.

First by completing the on-line survey here. “The purpose of this survey is to gather public input regarding the continuation of the high school exit examination and alternative pathways (emphasis added) to satisfy high school graduation requirements. Public input will help with the development of recommendations to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction regarding these issues.” The closing date of the survey is April 15, 2016.

And second, you could also contribute by attend a meeting, hosted by the California Department of Education titled, “Pathways to Graduation”. The department is accepting public comment concerning the reinstatement of the California High School Exit Exam with the remaining two regional meetings. Locations and times are noted below:

April 4, 2016
Los Angeles County Office of Education
12830 Columbia Way
Downey, CA 90242
5:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.

April 7, 2016
Santa Clara County Office of Education
1290 Ridder Park Drive
San Jose, CA 95131
5:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.

I attended an earlier scheduled California Department of Education Meeting in Sacramento. I drove over 2 hours to attend this meeting so you might imagine that the topic was pretty important to me to make that kind of effort.

I was the ONLY parent in attendance.

My opening comment was approximately 5 minutes in length. If you decide to contribute to the discussions mentioned above, please free to use any part of my public comment for the survey, or even consider using it for your own public comment. I won’t mind in the least.

As Mr. Rogers said in 2003,

When I was young most of my childhood heroes wore capes, flew through the air, or picked up buildings with one arm. They were specular and got a lot of attention. But as I grew my hero’s changed, so now, I can honestly say, that anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me.

I hope you’ll decide to reach out to the California Department of Education and give them something to think about concerning high school exit exams. To those who will, you are a hero to me.

Here is my opening public comment.

Should the state of California succumb to pressure and return to some sort of exit exam to “prove” its students are worthy of diplomas? Or should the exit exam be gone forever?

No one is suggesting students in high school be given a diploma that is not worthy of receiving. However, if a student attends regularly, and if they did the work and received the grades, then they should receive their diploma. This is how it should work. Do the work, get the grades, you get your diploma.

I can assure you though that my personal story as a child in foster care and the use of standardized test scores were abysmal and had I been required to pass an exit exam, I would have been denied a high school diploma. I know it, because I took a high school exit exam. I also took an ACT, SAT, GRE and those scores weren’t much better either. In fact, I failed my high school exit exam and graduated in the 50% of my graduating class.

The law, at the time of my graduation in Arizona, was slated to go into effect the following year after my graduation, but still I had to take the test in order to receive my diploma. I guess you could say I was a child in poverty. A foster kid who emancipated from the system.

Critics have said there is little evidence the exam alone helps boost achievement of at-risk students. Some have said that other accountability systems implemented at the same time, including the federal No Child Left Behind Act and the state’s Academic Performance Index, contributed more to pressuring schools to improve achievement among all student groups. Critics have even said, there is significant evidence the exit exam prevented many English learners, minority and low-income students from earning a high school diploma.

The findings from the Public Policy Institute of California suggest that two interventions have helped some students pass the exit exam (prior to 2015)—AB 347 funding for students who return to school after failing to pass the CAHSEE by the end of grade 12, and San Diego’s CAHSEE prep classes for students who fail to pass the exam in grade 10. The third intervention, AB 128 tutoring, did not appear to have any significant influence. Of the students who failed one or both components of the exit exam in grade 10, fewer than 1 in 30 subsequently passed because of these interventions. Or to put it another way, only 1 to 2 percent of all grade 10 students passed the exam because of these interventions.”

And, that doesn’t even take in account the cost of these programs.

Can you say these programs failed?

Yes, I can!

So, what do I think will happen over the next several years?

Various groups may pressure the state to restore an exit exam. Two years ago, Superintendent Torlakson floated the idea of using the SBAC Common Core tests to replace the exit exam. If this comes to pass, what will be the outcome? Many experts believe a lot of kids will fail the test for various reasons (ELL, foster kids, students in poverty, etc.) and they will not receive a diploma, as some did not receive one over the last 10 years. And, what will that mean for our society?

As Diane Ravitch says, you will have two classes of people, one with a diploma and one without a diploma (or perhaps they may be given a “certificate” but not a “diploma”). This will not be good for society as you’ll likely see it cut along economic levels. You will also see minorities in poverty and ELL and students with disabilities, who will be denied their diploma because they failed their high school exit exam.

And, yes, if the tests return, foster kids will fail these tests in epic numbers. How is it a good idea to deny a foster kid the ability to get a job without a diploma? How is that helpful? How can a foster kid, already in a situation of struggle, even as an adult able to move on without a diploma?

I just can’t image how I would have gone to a potential employer and they asked me, “Do you have your diploma?”, “Where did you graduate from high school”, and had I said, “I don’t have a diploma”, or “I didn’t graduate”, it might have affected my ability to get a minimum wage job. How is that helpful? It isn’t.

And, then there is this evidence, as noted by Anthony Cody,

A new study sheds startling light on a strong connection between high school exit exams and rates of incarceration. The authors of the study, Olesya Baker and Kevin Lang, compared states with exit exams to those that did not, and found that roughly one percent of students failed their exit exams and were denied diplomas as a result. This population of young people had a 12.5% increase in their rate of incarceration. The study found no particular benefits, in terms of employment or wages, from the exit exams.

The California State Legislature and DOE are correct; we should return to “no exit exam required for graduation”. Sure, you still have to attend and you still have to do the work and you still have to get the grades, but to deny a diploma to a child in poverty, or a foster kid, or an ELL, is mean and cruel. It is mean and cruel to deny a child a diploma after they did the work and because they failed an exit exam. In fact, by denying them a diploma, you set them on the path as an adult with failure, and that is a very difficult thing to overcome.

If the traditional high school exit exams are on the way out, will schools, local education agencies, industry and parents beg for an indicator of success, via some type of score on a test? And, will they beg for the ACT, or SAT, or even a consortia assessment from Smarter Balanced or PARCC as the answer?

Well, according to education officials in New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie’s administration, “the state will start using new optional testing or evaluation methods for high school graduation beginning in 2016.” “In no way, shape or form does a school have to use [PARCC] for graduation,” Hespe said. “We’re just saying they can use it.”

Does this make you wonder if the consortia would like their tests to replace the high school exit exam? How about the ACT, or SAT, replacing the high school exit exam? If this is true I ask, how will students such as ELL, foster kids and low income students fare? Well, if current results concerning the Smarter Balanced and PARCC assessments are any indicator, I say, not too well.

As the CDE continues to discuss the lack of value of the “high school exit exam” I hope they will remember these words and remember my five point plan for graduation as this is all that should be required of a student:

#1) Attend regularly

#2) Do the work

#3) Get the grades

#4) Complete all the requirements to graduate

#5) Get their diploma and go and make their life unimpeded by a high school exit exam.

You don’t know how a student will perform in career or college. You can’t predict it with an accuracy or any test or any other measure. So, why would you use a high school exit exam to be the road block to a student’s success for either career or college as if the exit exam was an indicator of a “students abilities”, or an indicator of their God-given talents, or their worth as a human being?

In ending, I would like to say, if any of you had seen my grades, which were C’s and B’s, you had looked at my failure of the exit exam and my class standing at 50%, you might have predicted that I would not go onto college and be a success.

However, I graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree and graduated with honors and went onto my Master’s degree, graduating with high honors.

High school exit exams are worthless.

Our students deserve better.

purschefamilyDenise Hertzog Pursche has been married for the past 15 years to her wonderful husband Daren.  After spending many years in the corporate world as a Consultant, Denise currently is a stay-at-home mom and considers herself a late bloomer.  A mother of 3 school age children, 3rd grade twins (Girl/Boy) and a 7th grade daughter, Denise became interested in education reform movement when she started seeing homework changes due to Common Core State Standards.  Over the last three to four years, Denise has been researching and reading about K-12 education reform movement.  Denise completed her Master’s Degree at San Jose State University, graduating in 1996, and completed an undergraduate degree from Arizona State University in 1988.  


Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.


  1. Elizabeth Hanson    

    Thank you Denise for writing this excellent article. I’m so sorry too what is happening in our nation. Keep up the good work. You have many friends who you never meet… like me. Also, I want you to know that the GED was taken over by Pearson and aligned to common core and it’s pass rates have plummeted since 2014. Prior to 2014 the GED had been aligned to the abilities of high school graduates and in Washington State we had had 13,000 GED earners on average… in 2014 we had fewer than 3,000. This too is another form of what I call “engineered oppression”. Take care. We’ll win in the end!

    1. ciedie aech    

      Oh, my. Engineered oppression is right. When I was writing my book about the invasions of test-score school reforms, I came up against the clear-cut “social engineering” now brought to ESSA and NCLB on the part of neo-liberal progressives like our so many “Democrats For Reform.” I began to see many of those calling themselves Democrats or “liberals” as being simply closet conservatives who were quietly pushing for the out-of-sight segregation of unwanted kids in the name of progress.

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