Alternatives to exit exam for the disabled

The State Board of Education took the first step Wednesday toward establishing alternatives for students with disabilities who can’t pass the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) but have met other requirements for a high school diploma.

While more than 90 percent of students overall pass CAHSEE, only about 60 percent of students with disabilities manage to pass it after numerous tries starting in 10th grade. Since 2008, the Legislature has exempted those who haven’t passed – about 18,000 per year out of about 44,000 students with disabiltiies who make it through high school – from the sanctions of failing to pass the exit exam.

The exemption will continue at least a couple more years before other, as yet undetermined,  measures are put into effect. Two thirds of students with disabilities have learning handicaps, with physical and emotional problems comprising most of the rest.

The exit exam tests knowledge of eighth grade math ­– algebra and arithemtic – and 10th grade level English language arts. The State Department of Education recommended a two-phase process for determining if students with disabilties have attained a level of knowledge that’s equivalent to passing CAHSEE.

The first phase would examine a student’s results on California’s standardized tests and the California Modified Assessment, which offers accommodations for the disabled. The State Department had recommended that students’ grades be considered as well, but, for now, the State Board said no  – despite the urging of  board member Ben Austin, who cited his own experience with severe dyslexia. There are others like him, who managed to get good grades – Austin graduated from UC-Berkeley and then law school  – yet always struggled with standardized tests, he said.

With the State Board’s go-ahead, state education experts must now determine the precise test scores that qualify as passing CAHSEE. Consultants predict that only several hundred of the 18,000 students will pass this way. That’s because students who have difficulty passing CAHSEE also had low scores on other standardized tests.

The vast majority who don’t pass Phase I – as many as 15,000 – yet have met all other graduation requirements and have  letters of support from their teachers will then have a portfolio of their work examined. This could be costly and would involve teachers trained to make consistent comparisons of student work.

The State Board put off moving ahead with Phase II until it has approved the precise cutoff scores for Phase I.

Whether to require disabled students to pass CAHSEE has been contentious. Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell has pushed to include them. Many students with disabilities can pass CAHSEE; if passage is not required,  they will tend to be ignored, he has argued, and many parents agree. However, other parents argue that multiple choice tests are a limiting and inaccurate picture of disabled students’ accomplishments.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (, one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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