Higher Goals for Exit Exams California cheats its students by expecting too little

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Higher Goals for Exit Exams
California cheats its students by expecting too little

– Pete Wilson, Bill Evers
Tuesday, September 28, 1999

GOV. GRAY DAVIS and the state Legislature have adopted the popular idea of having a high school exit exam. This could help to ensure that a diploma in California means something. But if done wrong, it could set back the task of school improvement. Deciding how high to set the hurdle requires care. If the test is too hard, many students won’t graduate. Making the test too easy discourages high achievement and works against the educational improvement we desperately need. In mathematics, it looks as if California is going to take a counterproductive approach. The current plan emphasizes the least difficult math standards from grades 7 and 8.

We all want our high school graduates to know their seventh-grade math, but we simply must set higher goals. It is well known that algebra is the gateway to further achievement in math and science education, yet California has never required our students to learn it. New math standards were put in place in 1997. These standards encourage taking algebra by eighth grade so our students would catch up to those in high-performing foreign countries. With this as a long-range plan, a logical starting point is to require knowledge of algebra for high school graduation.

Unfortunately, the math test planning committee, appointed by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, has chosen to continue to avoid algebra. Do the committee members believe California’s students can’t learn it? Are they afraid that California’s teachers can’t teach it? Or do they simply believe that an easy test will make educators look good?

Setting the bar too low can have serious consequences. It says that mediocre is good enough. It encourages our teachers to emphasize low-level content. It works against any chance we have of improving California students’ currently abysmal performance in mathematics.

Worst of all, it will perpetuate existing gaps in achievement. Effectively, it says that the low achievement that is common now among poor and minority students is good enough. Yet low expectations are not what these students need or deserve.

If students are going to be prepared for the job market of the Information Age, they need to know algebra. After we climb the ladder to this point, we can require further knowledge of mathematics to bring us still closer to the achievement of students in other countries. California is just beginning to test students against its new standards, and we must continue in that direction if we are to see improvement.

Our high school exit exam has to mesh with our long-term goals.

It is time to stop rewriting the rules to avoid the truth about how poorly we are doing in mathematics education. It is time to insist that our schools teach algebra to all students. Only this can honestly be called solid education for all.

Pete Wilson was governor of California from 1991 to 1999. Bill Evers is a former commissioner of the California State Academic Standards Commission. Both are fellows of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

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