Percentage of students passing exit exam rises

The percentage of high school students passing the California High School Exit Exam continued to increase statewide for the sixth consecutive year, according to data released by the state Department of Education Wednesday.

Despite heavy cuts to K-12 education over the last decade from the state, the percentage of students in the graduating class of 2011 that passed the exam rose from 94.4 percent to 94.6 percent. In 2006, that number was 90.4 percent.

“We’ve been making the curriculum tougher, when you ask kids to do more, they will do more, and when you ask more of children, they will do better,” said Tina Jung, a department spokesperson.

The first exit exam — required to graduate from California high schools —  was held in 2001 as part of a package of educational reforms, including revamping teaching and curriculum standards.

The exam has been widely criticized as some allege teachers forgo education by teaching to the test and argue it does not gauge college preparedness, says Mary Perry, deputy director of EdSource, a nonprofit organization that researches education in California.

A separate report released earlier this month from the not-for-profit organization ACT — which administers a test of the same name designed to measure college preparedness — seemingly contradicts the exit exam numbers, showing college preparedness levels declining across the state from 31 percent meeting ACT’s benchmarks to 30 percent, a decrease of roughly 1,500 students.

Perry says the ACT report’s numbers’ discrepancy may only be superficial. She said ACT test takers are self-selecting, college-bound students,  whereas every California high school student must take the exit exam.

“You don’t know whether the decline you’re seeing is a reduction of the skill set of California students or is because the group taking the test changed,” she added.

State department spokesperson Jung says the two tests shouldn’t be compared because the exit exam measures math skills through seventh grade and English and language arts through the 10th grade, while the ACT tests a student’s ability to take college level courses.

UC spokesperson Ricardo Vazquez said most UC admits take the SAT —  a college-readiness test administered by the not-for-profit College Board — and a growing number are taking both the  ACT and the SAT, though few take the ACT exclusively. Exact numbers for university were not immediately available as of press time.

According to Perry, 50 percent of graduating seniors in California took the SAT while 22 percent took the ACT in 2010.

She said the state is working on new standards that will better incorporate college preparedness into high school requirements like the exit exam.