Thursday, July 23, 2009




For many months, Americans have heard politicians from President Obama to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and many lesser figures repeat the cliché that "every crisis offers an opportunity."

They generally mean that crises cause reevaluations of past practices, with the aim of fixing whatever caused the crisis.

But crises also offer plenty of chances for self-destructive flailing about, something California has seen in copious amounts as the state budget crisis unfolded this spring and summer.

First Schwarzenegger wants to save money by closing more than 200 state parks and beaches; then we learn the parks contribute far more to nearby local economies and tax coffers than they cost to maintain. He wants to release tens of thousands of prison inmates to save big bucks, but has no idea how much those releases might cost in terms of new crimes. And more.

Some moves he's proposed are things he tried - and failed - to get voters and lawmakers to approve in years past. A crisis, he obviously believes, gives him one last chance at pushing through some of his original agenda.

Legislators are no better. They also pursue old agendas with new urgency at a time of crisis.

So it is with the attempt by some liberal Sacramento Democrats to do away (temporarily, they say) with the state's high school exit exam. This verbal and math test offers employers the certainty that young people they hire will possess a certain set of knowledge and skills. Without it, high school diplomas would lose a great deal of their meaning.

The proposal comes in the twin names of saving money and increasing fairness. It would do neither.

For the Democrats don't really want to end the exit exam; they just want it not to count. Yep, their plan would have schools keep on giving the test to all 10th graders (and pupils beyond that level who previously failed to pass). But students who fail would now be allowed to graduate anyway, with precisely the same diplomas as those who pass.

There's little or no savings here, despite the fact that the six-person Democratic majority in control of a joint legislative budget conference committee listed that as the reason for a change. If schools keep giving the exam, they're spending the same amounts on proctoring and other arrangements as they would if the test counted.

What's really at work here, then, is that some ultra-liberal Democrats, led by Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, have long opposed the entire concept of the exam. They've argued for most of the last decade that the exam favors children of the wealthy, who often have educational advantages over poorer kids and children of immigrants. They also contend that poor test-takers are at a disadvantage, even if they've proved their skills and knowledge in ordinary course-work.

Trying to make up for the socio-economic factors, schools now run copious test-preparation classes, both during school hours and after school. But the exam's longtime opponents are not satisfied.

They say that as schools chop their budgets in response to state cuts, they'll offer less test-prep. "Why would you hold kids accountable to a standard that we're not providing the resources for them to meet?" Bass told a reporter.

Of course, myriad high schools long ago adjusted their normal curricula for "teaching to the test," meaning coursework is designed to prepare students for this test more than to give them general knowledge. Which should make the test-prep work of the exam's early years less necessary.

The attempt to suspend or kill the exam also ignores the simple fairness issue: If students who have already graduated under the exam system have diplomas with true meaning, why deprive future grads, including next year's, of the chance to get the same certification of achievement?

The fact is the exit exam has accomplished what it set out to do: force schools to improve instruction and compel students to take their work seriously for fear they won't get that all-important sheepskin. When kids fail the test, their parents also are put on notice to do something if they are concerned about their children's future.

Interestingly, test critics have mostly ignored suggestions for differential diplomas, where students who fail could still get a certificate, but a different one from that given pupils who pass exam. Their action says they'd rather try to get rid of the exam entirely than work to help poor test-takers and others find ways to compensate for failing.

The good thing is that Democrats are not united in the dump-the-exam camp, even if all six on the budget committee voted that way. State schools Supt. Jack O'Connell is one Democrat very much behind the exam.

"We do a grave injustice to our students if we don't ensure they have the minimal skills needed in the increasingly competitive global economy," he said.

He's outlined the bottom-line fact here: The exit exam boosts educational quality and therefore is important to this state's future. Using a budget battle as an pretext for dumping it would not only be deceptive, but destructive.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

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