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California School Fiscal Services

Providing comprehensive business office and consulting services to K-12 traditional schools and charters



School districts will be required to verify they're fixing California's lowest-performing schools

Posted on January 10, 2019 at 2:15 PM Comments comments (17938)

By the end of January, the state will publish the initial list of hundreds of low-performing California schools that must receive intensive help under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which Congress passed in late 2015.

On Wednesday, the State Board of Education approved how districts with any of those schools must verify what they’re doing to turn those schools around. A coalition of student advocacy groups unsuccessfully argued that documentation alone isn’t enough. They urged the state board to require more monitoring by county offices of education and proof that districts’ actions are improving student performance.

What is clear is that there will be a lot more schools in line for assistance than the board initially anticipated and that their numbers will stretch thin the $130 million per year in federal funding that’s been set aside for “comprehensive” assistance.

Like the No Child Left Behind Act, which it replaced, the Every Student Succeeds Act requires that states identify and improve the performance of the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools receiving federal funding for low-income students, along with high schools where fewer than two-thirds of students graduate. But unlike NCLB, which told states how to fix the schools — like firing the principal and replacing half the staff — Congress gave states wide latitude to choose their own strategies.

The state board’s plan for implementing the law, which took months of negotiating with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ staff, is consistent with the state’s new approach to accountability under local control.

The state plan says that the multicolored California School Dashboard will identify the low-performing schools, just as it does for districts. The dashboard uses a range of metrics, including suspension rates, chronic absenteeism and graduation rates — not just standardized test scores — to measure performance. And the plan says that school districts will be in charge of improving low-performing schools, consistent with how they address low-performing student groups districtwide that the dashboard identified.

With its vote on Wednesday, the board will require districts to add a separate section to their Local Control and Accountability Plans to deal with low-performing schools. LCAPs are the documents that districts must update yearly to spell out how they will spend money and expand programs and services for all students, particularly low-income children, English learners, foster and homeless youths.

In the new LCAP section, districts must verify that they thoroughly examined the school’s needs and weaknesses, adopted interventions that have been proven to work and identified “resource inequities” that a school improvement plan would address. A district must seek the advice of principals and other school leaders, teachers and parents and tell how the school will meet the needs of students at risk of not meeting the state academic standards.

Board members emphasized in the discussion that they were adopting an interim approach to satisfy federal law. Over the next three years, the California Department of Education plans to redo the LCAP to make it quicker to read and to write. Responding to repeated complaints that the public cannot track spending easily, if at all, in some districts, staff are creating a budget summary for parents. And the state’s Department of Finance will issue regulations this year requiring further budget transparency.

In a Jan. 4 letter, leaders of seven student advocacy nonprofits that formed the Equity Coalition credited the board’s efforts but criticized it for not taking a strong role in ensuring that low-performing schools actually make progress. They called for county offices of education, which already review district LCAPs to make sure they are complying with state law, to monitor the strategies and spending of districts.

“We want counties to play a more active role” and not simply “hold their noses if the plans are bad,” John Affeldt, managing attorney for Public Advocates, a coalition member, told the board on Wednesday.

State law requires that the state superintendent of public instruction and the state board intensify intervention if a district’s poorly performing student groups identified by the dashboard don’t improve within several years, but the state board hasn’t said what the interventions might be. The board similarly hasn’t decided what it might do with low-performing schools that don’t improve.

The state’s Department of Education is expected to name about 350 low-performing schools, based on those that perform in the red — the lowest of five color-coded performance levels — on all or most of the dashboard metrics. The wild card this year will be the addition of hundreds of district and county alternative high schools serving students who have dropped out, been expelled, spent time in juvenile hall or feel out-of-place in traditional high schools. They weren’t included under previous state accountability systems but will get long-overdue attention now. With low graduation rates, many, if not most, will likely make the state’s list.

Federal law requires that California distribute $130 million — 7 percent of its Title I funding for low-income schools — to fix the lowest-performing schools. A big list could reduce each school’s allocation, which could end up being anywhere between $200,000 and close to $400,000 per school.

The board is expected to further discuss the list and the state’s response to the Every Student Succeeds Act on Thursday with item 24 on the agenda (go here to view the slides for the presentation to the state board).


John Fensterwald

ESSA Cheat Sheet: What's in the New Testing Regulations?

Posted on April 26, 2016 at 1:15 PM Comments comments (4077)
You all know how much I love a good "cheat sheet".  This article does a great job of summarizing test regulations in an easy to understand manner.  It's important to keep up in this area so you have a solid understanding of the pressures and influences on your program side.  


By Alyson Klein on April 21, 2016 9:43 AM


School districts, state chiefs, advocates, and the U.S. Department of Education now have a better idea of how testing will work under the brand-new Every Student Succeeds Act. And it only took eight days of eye-glazing-and-occasionally-contentious debate, known inside the Beltway as "negotiated rulemaking."


A committee of educators, advocates, and experts charged with hashing out rules for ESSA wasn't able to reach agreement on something called supplement-not-supplant (a wonky spending provision), but they did come to accord on a number of important testing issues, including for English-language learners, and students in special education.


Here are the highlights of what they agreed to, in plain English:


How Testing Is Supposed to Work in General


States have to test students in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, in math and reading, plus science in certain grade spans. If they want to test in other subjects, that's fine, as long as those tests are aligned to state-level academic standards.

States have to report results separately for boys, girls, English-language learners, students in special education status, different racial groups, poor kids, homeless kids, foster kids, and military-connected kids. Those last three categories are brand new in ESSA. The regs define what it means to be a child in foster care, including any one in a foster home, group home, residential facility, pre-adoptive home, or emergency shelter.

All students in the state have to take the same test in each grade, with a couple of exceptions. Those exceptions include districts participating in a local assessment pilot (up to seven states can apply for that) and in districts that choose to use a nationally recognized high school test instead of the state exam. (More on that below). Also, 8th graders who are taking advanced math classes—like Algebra or Geometry—can take a test at their level, instead of the regular state math test for 8th graders. (More below on that, too.)

Tests have to be accessible to English-language learners and students in special education. So if they need accommodations, like extra time, they should get it. And tests should be aligned to standards that get kids ready for postsecondary education or the workplace.

Tests don't have to be the fill-in-the-bubble tests everyone complains about. States can include portfolios or big performance tasks as part of the picture. And the tests don't have to be one big, summative test at the end of the year; they can be smaller interim assessments.

Hotly debated? Nah. Most of these provisions didn't elicit a ton of discussion during the negotiations. That's because they basically reiterate what's already in ESSA.


Computer-Adaptive Tests


States can use these if they want in lieu of regular-old pen-and-paper tests. And the tests can include questions that are at or below a students' grade level, so schools can see how kids are growing academically. But the computer-adaptive tests also have to show whether or not a student is on grade level, for the grade they are actually enrolled in.


Hotly debated? Nope. This issue was probably the easiest one to negotiate.


Locally Selected, Nationally Recognized High School Tests


ESSA includes a new twist on high school tests. Districts can use a locally-selected, nationally recognized high school test instead of the state exam, if they want to, as long as the state gives the OK.


So what exactly is a nationally recognized test? According to the new regs, it's any test for high school students that is administered in multiple states and is accepted by institutions of higher education in those or other states for college entrance or placement. That means SAT, ACT, PARCC, and Smarter Balanced count. And it would seem that Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate are also kosher. NAEP, on the other hand, is almost certainly out because it's not a college or placement test. Importantly, these tests will still have to meet the standards of the federal peer review process.


How do these tests get phased in? The new regulations make it clear that if a district chooses to offer an alternative test, it has to use the same test with all its high schools. And it can't phase the new test in slowly. It's all at once or nothing. That's true whether the district is New York City Public Schools, which has over 500 high schools, or Farmingdale Public Schools on Long Island, which has just one high school.


Also: ELLs and students in special education need to get the accommodations they need to take these tests, and the school district is responsible for making sure that happens.


And, importantly, ELLs and students in special education have to get the same benefits from taking the tests that other kids do. So if the test the district chooses is a college entrance test, like the SAT, all groups of kids need to be able to use it for college entrance, even if they use accommodations to take it. This has been a struggle for the ACT and SAT. More in this great story from my colleague, Catherine.


Districts can't just suddenly switch tests. Before they request the switch, they have to give parents a chance to provide input and explain to them how instruction might change. And if charters are going to be effected by the switch, the district needs to get their input. Plus, once a new test is adopted, the district has to let parents know.


Charters that count as school districts can take advantage of this option, too. But they still have to abide by state charter laws. So if the state law says charters have to give the same test as the neighboring high schools, they have to stick with that test.


Hotly debated? It wasn't the most contentious part of negotiations, but it wasn't all puppies and kittens, either. The toughest issues were the definition of "nationally recognized test" and the question of whether districts could phase those tests in. Derrick Chau of the Los Angeles school board pushed for the phase-in, but got shot down by other negotiators, including the Education Department, which really put its foot down.


Advanced Math Test Exception


Under ESSA, students who are taking advanced math courses in 8th grade, like say, Geometry, can take a math test on their own level, instead of the typical state test for 8th graders. In order to get this flexibility, though, states needs to provide appropriate accommodations for students in special education and ELLs.


And in plans submitted to the department, states have to describe their strategy to provide all kids in the state with the opportunity to take and be ready for advanced middle school math. Essentially, states have to have a game plan, at least on paper, for giving every kid the opportunity to take the tougher math classes early.


Hotly debated? Sorta, it elicited more discussion than you might expect. The department originally had stronger language, saying the state had to ensure all kids could take advanced math. Practitioners on the panel, especially the state chief and district leaders, convinced the rest of the negotiators that was a pretty heavy burden, and states might opt not to offer the advanced math test because of it. So the language was toned down.


Testing Students in Special Education


What ESSA says: States can opt to offer alternative tests to the 1 percent of students with the most severe cognitive disabilities, or about 10 percent of students in special education, just like they could under the most recent regulations under the No Child Left Behind Act, which ESSA replaced. The 1 percent cap applies at the state level, but not at the district level. And states can ask for a waiver to exceed it. At one point, under NCLB, an additional 2 percent of students who had trouble meeting state standards could take alternate tests, but that exception was scrapped years ago. Still, most states are still struggling to get to below 1 percent, according to data distributed by the department.


What the regs say: The regulations attach a lot of new requirements for states here.


On those waivers from the 1 percent cap: Waivers can only be given for one year at a time. And states have to provide data showing the number of kids in each subgroup that last year took, or are now slated to take, alternative tests. (That way advocates can see if, say, racial minorities are being disproportionately held to different standards.) The state also has to show that 95 percent of kids in special education, and 95 percent of all kids took tests. And states have to help districts that go over the cap, and make sure those districts are training school staff, especially IEP teams, appropriately when it comes to who has a severe cognitive disability and who doesn't. Bottomline: It looks like it could be very hard for many states to get the 1 percent cap waived, even for just one year.

Definition of "severe cognitive disability": The feds don't get to define this, but states must. And they have to take into consideration both students' cognitive ability (academic potential) and their adaptive behavior (how well they handle being in school). Schools can't just look at low grades and decide, that yup, that kid has a severe cognitive disability.

Hotly debated? Very! This issue almost prevented an agreement on assessments. The biggest sticking points were those lists of requirements to get a waiver from the 1 percent cap—it's obviously going to be really hard for many states—and whether there should be one enforceable definition of "severe cognitive disabilities."


Testing for English-Language Learners


States need to make every effort to provide students with tests in languages a significant number of students speak. Right now, very few states offer these tests. In deciding what languages to offer tests in, states should consider which languages are spoken by a significant number of kids in one or more districts, according to the new regs. And, importantly, they have to include the second-most common language spoken by students in the state, other than English.


Students who are in Native American language immersion programs can take an assessment in their ancestral tongue for accountability purposes, as long as that test has gone through the department's rigorous peer review process.


Under ESSA, states must include progress towards English-language proficiency as a factor for accountability. To measure that, states must create or pick a statewide assessment of English-language proficiency that includes reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills.


Hotly debated? Not really. This topic generated passionate discussion, but agreement was fairly easy.


Are these regs finished? Not exactly. They are technically tentative, but it's mostly spit and polish at this point. They will still need to be published in the Federal Register and commented on. They can still be tweaked before they are final.


Negotiators, department officials, advocates, eduwonks, anyone else who slogged through eight days of listening to phrases like "romanette three"—got something to add or tweak here? Email me at [email protected] We will flag any major changes to this explainer. (UPDATE: There have already been a few minor tweaks.)

Waiver states could learn from CA's CORE on ESSA

Posted on January 25, 2016 at 11:50 AM Comments comments (14242)
Happy Monday!

No suprise that when districts are given local control over their accountabily, they create a more comprehensive picture of the whole student.  Let's hope this is a glimmer into the future of accountability and the end of the "one stop" assessment for all.  



by Kimberly Beltran

(Calif.) As most of the nation’s schools ponder the new goals set by the Every Child Succeeds Act, a group of districts in California might actually be putting the final touches on a major element of the transition.


The nine-district consortium, California Office to Reform Education – or CORE – is less than two weeks away from unveiling results of a new school rating system that combines test scores with data on an array of non-academic metrics to provide a holistic snapshot of how well students are being prepared for college and career.


Building and implementing a new accountability system by 2017 is perhaps the most challenging mandate imposed on the states by ESSA and the one that will likely cause the greatest anxiety.


“College and career readiness is not only about academic achievement,” said CORE’s executive director Rick Miller. “We actually have pretty good research to argue that for college persistence non-cognitive skills are as important if not more so than just academic achievement. So teaching these other skills and making sure that the whole child is paid attention to matters.”


Architects of the new accountability model, called the School Quality Improvement Index, hope it will paint a picture of where the nearly 1,500 schools in the system stand relative to each other and give administrators a clear look at those that need intervention.


“The data is showing us what we believe to be true, which is that looking at multiple measures gives you a much more appropriate and more nuanced look at the effectiveness of the schools,” said Miller.


The big day for CORE is Feb. 2 when it releases the first-time results for how students performed as measured by the new index. It comes well ahead of when Congress said all states need to accomplish the same feat as part of ESSA, which gives states much more authority and flexibility over education policy than was possible under the No Child Left Behind Act.


CORE, along with a majority of states, has been operating under a federal waiver program that offered relief from the demands of NCLB in exchange for a number of conditions – one of them was to create new systems for student achievement and school accountability. Texas, New Hampshire, Minnesota and New York are among those that have also developed more holistic school accountability models under the waiver umbrella and officials in those states have reported that they believe their systems align well with the goals of ESSA.


California was one of a handful of states that didn’t receive an NCLB waiver but CORE – which includes the schools of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Fresno, Oakland, Long Beach, Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Sanger and Sacramento – was the only district-level entity to request and receive the exemption.


Miller reports that the group not only believes its accountability index will allow its schools to meet federal reporting mandates but that it goes above and beyond those requirements in an effort to drastically improve student outcomes.


One example of that is in the way CORE schools now report and weigh student subgroup data. While most schools must account for achievement of student subgroups numbering 100 or more, CORE is disaggregating and reporting academic data on school subgroups with as few as 20 students – a move that means the performance of an additional 150,000 students who otherwise wouldn’t have been counted is included. In addition, subgroup and overall student performance are given equal weight when it comes to factoring the metrics in the index.


CORE’s School Quality Improvement Index is broken into two domains, academic, which accounts for 60 percent of a school’s accountability score, and social-emotional/culture-climate factors, weighted at 40 percent.


The academic information is calculated using annual English and math assessment performance, year-to-year improvement – or growth – on assessments, high school graduation rates (including four, five and six-year cohorts) and eighth graders’ high school readiness. Because 2014-15 is the first, or baseline, year for the index, next fall’s release of 2015-16 data will show the actual academic growth for students.


Social-emotional and culture-climate factors include chronic absenteeism, suspension/expulsion and English learner re-designation rates as well as social-emotional skills and culture-climate ratings – the latter two determined by surveys of students, staff and parents.


Some 454,298 students completed the social-emotional/culture-climate surveys last spring, and two districts collected 2,700 teacher reports on approximately 71,000 students’ social-emotional skills, according to a CORE report on the index.


Every school’s report will include an index score between one and 10 on each of the individual metrics in both the academic and social-emotional domains, providing an easy reference as to how that school is performing in relation to similar schools within the network.


It is interesting to note that California’s Department of Education, in conjunction with the state board, has been working to develop its own new accountability system having discarded the Academic Performance Index in the wake of new funding and assessment systems.


Board members have said that rather than weighting and indexing various factors to come up with a single school score, however, they prefer a “dashboard” of metrics – one that includes academic performance and graduation rates because that data exists, but possibly allowing districts to use whatever mechanisms they have to show non-academic performance.


“We feel like we’ve stepped up to a higher level of accountability and a system that helps us hold each other accountable and actually helps inform instruction and helps us get better,” Miller added. “There’s obviously concern that a new simplistic state model could push us back into a less rigorous accountability model.”



How Clean is Your Data?

Posted on January 20, 2016 at 1:50 PM Comments comments (7015)
The following article illustrates how the "slicing and dicing" of our school data can make a tremendous difference.  Tracking high school graduation rates has always been a challenge and varying expectations between the feds and the state make it only that much more challenging.

This raises the larger issue of our district/charter data.  Collecting and reporting clean data is a time-consuming and often challenging task.  Regardless of the size of your organization, I  strongly encourage you to dedicate someone to this task.  It takes regular attention and someone  focused to stay on top of the ever-changing regulations in order to keep your data accurate.  Bad data can result in a lot of problems, loss of revenue, and audit findings. 

Calculating High School Graduation Rates


The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was recently signed into law by President Obama, aims to offer states more flexibility in designing K–12 accountability programs than they had under No Child Left Behind. But one of ESSA’s lesser known provisions—a requirement that states identify and assist high schools with graduation rates below 67 percent—might force California to revise the way it deals with graduation rates at alternative high schools. Currently, the California Department of Education (CDE) excludes students attending most of the 640 alternative high schools across the state from its graduation rate calculations. Alternative schools—also known as district continuation schools, county community schools, and district and charter alternative "schools of choice”—are designed to help dropouts, students with behavior problems, pregnant or parenting teens, and truants. About 75 percent of the students at alternative high schools are juniors and seniors, according to CDE data.


ESSA requires states to calculate "cohort” graduation rates—which involve tracking students from 9th through 12th grade. The cohort graduation rate means something different at alternative schools than it does for regular schools. Students often transfer to alternative schools because they are struggling in school. CDE also reports that students attend alternative schools for an average of less than four months. Even so, CDE assigns students who transfer to alternative schools to those schools’ cohorts. Since CDE does not calculate graduation rates for most alternative schools, 92,300 high school seniors—or 18.7 percent of the Class of 2014—are excluded from statewide data (although these students are usually included in their districts’ graduation rates).


There are two main options for including all students in California’s school graduation rates. First, graduation rates for alternative schools could be published, although it is likely that their rates would be much lower than those of regular schools—and would fall below ESSA’s 67 percent threshold. According to PPIC estimates, alternative school graduation rates average about 45 percent, far below the statewide rate of 81 percent. The problem with this option is that, given the role alternative schools play in helping at-risk students, these low rates do not necessarily mean that alternative schools are underperforming.


The other option is to include alternative school students in the graduation rates of their "home” high schools. After all, students generally spend most of their high school years at their regular high school, attending alternative schools for short spells. In fact, excluding a large proportion of at-risk students from the calculation of school graduation rates does not accurately represent the performance of the state’s high schools. Using 2013–14 data, we estimate this option would reduce "regular” high school graduation rates an average of 8 percent.


CDE’s current graduation rate methodology appears to be at odds with the federal approach to accountability. It also makes it more difficult for educators, parents, and other interested community members to get accurate information about the success of local schools. Moreover, the methodology creates an incentive for educators to send low-performing students to alternative schools. Thus, there are several important reasons to revisit the way CDE calculates school graduation rates.

Schools on Open Enrollment list

Posted on November 24, 2014 at 1:15 PM Comments comments (2108)

So, here's the list that you DON'T want to appear!  


Open Enrollment Schools


2015-16 list, based on 2013 Growth API scores


Apple Valley Unified


1. Phoenix Academy


2. High Desert Premier Academy


Adelanto Elementary School District

3. Columbia International Science, Math & T


4. Adelanto Elementary


Helendale School District


5. Helendale Elementary


Hesperia Unified


6. Eucalyptus Elementary


7. Hesperia Junior High


8. Hollyvale Elementary


Lucerne Valley Unified


9. Lucerne Valley Elementary


Snowline Joint Unified


10. Vista Verde Elementary


11. Phelan Elementary


Victor Elementary School District


12. Liberty Elementary


13. Green Tree East Elementary


Victor Valley Union School District


14. Adelanto High


Source: California Department of Education


Fourteen locals schools were named on the California Department of Education’s 2015-16 Open Enrollment list, which allows students at “low-achieving” schools to transfer to another higher performing district school.

The list includes 1,000 schools total across California and is whittled down to fit a ratio of 687 elementary schools, 165 middle schools, and 148 high schools. Charter schools and schools that have fewer than 100 valid state standardized tests scores are exempt from being included.

Almost every local school district had at least one school on the list. Hesperia Unified, the largest local school district, had three while the Adelanto Elementary, Victor Elementary and Snowline Joint Unified districts each had two schools on the list.

For the Adelanto Elementary School District the designation doesn’t really impact what is already occurring, according to AESD Chief Academic Officer Amy Nguyen-Hernandez. She said the entire district is considered open enrollment and allows students to attend the school of their choice granted there is space available.

“For us no matter what your home school is you can put (in) your application for another site,” Nguyen-Hernandez. “Most districts, if they have room, take that as a policy.”

In Victor Elementary School District, all 18 schools are already “schools of choice,” allowing for parents to enroll their children at any of the sites. However, transportation is only provided to students in four neighborhood quadrants.

VESD Superintendent Jan Gonzales said this idea was not spurred by the state’s “open enrollment” requirement given to low-achieving schools. She said other local districts may choose it because so many schools in one district are mandated to have the policy through the state’s “program improvement.”

“It’s just a belief in our district that we’ve held that parents should have a choice in where they go,” Gonzales said. “We want them to be vested in the programs and opportunities that we have. That was done long before No Child Left Behind and open enrollment.”

Gonzales said the idea came from Academy of Performing Arts and Foreign Language in Victorville about 20 years ago.

According to local school officials, the data used to determine this year’s open enrollment list is two years old.

“Because the state didn’t score the Smarter Balanced tests last year, they just froze the data from two years ago so everyone stayed at the same level,” Nguyen-Hernandez said. “So how true that is to what’s currently happening right now with the students — it may or may not be true.”

At its March 2014 meeting, the State Board of Education decided not to calculate 2014 Academic Performance Index scores amid historic reforms including the transition to Common Core and the new California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress system. Therefore, the 2015-16 open enrollment list was produced based on the 2013 Growth API scores, according to the CDE. The state is also in the middle of determining the next program it will use to hold schools accountable and may completely get rid of the API system.

Brooke Self may be reached at 760-951-6232 or [email protected] You can also follow her on Twitter at @BrookeSelf or @DPEduNews.


Fate of high school exit exam undecided

Posted on September 19, 2014 at 9:20 AM Comments comments (734)

Does anyone else remember the advent of the California High School Exit Exam and the amount of effort involved in getting our kids ready to pass it?  

I find it interesting that the question of whether or not to keep it is contingent on an analysis of how students do on the new Smarter Balanced assessment.  

It's hard to watch these hoops change so often for our kids.  


September 17, 2014 | By Michelle Maitre | Edsource

While the state’s standardized testing program is being revamped during the transition to the new Common Core State Standards, the fate of the high school exit exam – the one test students must pass – remains murky.


In overhauling the state assessment system last year, officials postponed a decision about the exit exam, which students need to pass in order to receive a high school diploma. Most other tests are on temporary hiatus while students take a practice test aligned to Common Core. The voluntary standards, adopted by California and 42 other states, set common requirements for what students should know in math and English.


But the exit exam – aligned to the old state standards – remains in place as a requirement for graduating seniors. The most recent scores, for the class of 2014, are expected to be released Friday.


Officials must now return to discussions about the future of the California High School Exit Exam, whether or how it should be revamped to meet the Common Core standards and whether it should be required as a separate assessment at all.


Any change to the test would require action in the Legislature, and state officials could seek clarity on the exam when the next legislative cycle begins in December, said Diane Hernandez, director of the assessment development and administration division of the California Department of Education.


“We want to have conversations about whether to continue with the graduation assessment first, and second, what that could be,” Hernandez said.


The 2013 law that suspended most testing requirements, Assembly Bill 484, was mum on the exit exam, but did set a 2016 deadline for the State Board of Education to present a comprehensive testing plan to the Legislature.


A January 2013 report from State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson recommends considering “alternatives” to the exit exam. Among them:


Eliminating the exam as a stand-alone requirement and using results of the Smarter Balanced assessments – the new computerized tests aligned to the Common Core – “to determine academic readiness for high school graduation.”

Using results of voluntary exams, such as the ACT and SAT college admissions exams, or Advanced Placement tests, “as a proxy for meeting high school exit requirements.” Those test results would be used in conjunction with state-administered tests, such as the Smarter Balanced assessments.

Using the “successful completion” of specific courses to determine whether students meet graduation requirements. Exactly what constitutes “successful completion” would need to be defined, the report said.

The results of the Smarter Balanced tests could be one predictor of the future of the exit exam.

Students in grades 3 through 8 and 11 tried out the test in practice sessions this school year. Students will begin taking the real test in spring 2015 and the first meaningful results could be available by summer 2015, said State Board President Michael Kirst.


The tests go beyond the multiple-choice assessments of the past and are designed to test critical thinking and reasoning skills. And the tests are computer adaptive, meaning the questions get easier or harder, depending on how many questions a student answers correctly. Officials anticipate the new tests will provide a better understanding of student strengths and weaknesses and more meaningful results on academic progress.


“I think once we see the Smarter Balanced results we will know more” about what to do with the exit exam, Kirst said. “It’s possible that once we see what’s going on with that, we could rethink the high school exit exam. We want to see what that adaptive ability adds to our understanding of the high school exit exam.”


California isn’t alone in grappling with the issue, Hernandez said. The more rigorous academics required under Common Core are prompting a number of states to revisit their exit exam requirements.


A goal of Common Core is that students graduate with the skills they need to succeed in college and careers, raising questions about the role of an exit exam under the new standards and sparking discussions about the meaning of a high school diploma.


The exit exam was created in 1999 under a state law authored by Sen. Jack O’Connell, who later became state superintendent of public instruction. The exam’s purpose was to ensure that students met basic proficiency in math and English before they obtained high school diplomas, but not to measure the higher bar of whether students were academically ready for college-level work.


Richard Duran, a UC Santa Barbara professor who sits on a California Department of Education technical advisory group on the exit exam, said it would be a mistake to eliminate the exit exam and rely instead on the Smarter Balanced tests to confer diplomas.


“The issue is what do we mean by being qualified to receive a high school diploma,” Duran said. “If that diploma is dependent on a test, and if that test were to be the (Smarter Balanced) test that could only be passed by being college ready, it would be a disaster. It would mean that a larger percentage of students would not receive the high school diploma.”


The exit exam, he said, was not intended to be a measure of college readiness.


“I don’t think that’s fair for students to have to be kind of caught in the middle there while our policy makers figure out how to help them,” said Jeannette LaFors, director of equity initiatives at The Education Trust-West.

The exit exam includes two portions – a math section that tests sixth- and seventh-grade material and Algebra I, and an English language arts portion that tests up to 10th grade material. Students have numerous chances to take the test, beginning in 10th grade.


Passage rates on the exam have grown incrementally each year, from a 90.4 percent passage rate in 2006 to the highest yet – 95.5 percent – for the class of 2013.


Hernandez and others give the test credit for improving academics and allowing for targeted instruction for struggling students, boosting graduation rates, reducing dropout rates and increasing the number of students who are taking algebra and advanced math classes.


Yet low-income students and English learners pass the test at lower rates than other students. Eighty-two percent of English learners and 93.5 percent of low-income students passed the exit exam in 2013, state data show, and racial gaps remain. African-American students posted a 92 percent passage rate in 2013, while the passage rate for Latino students was 94 percent. That’s compared with a 99 percent passage rates for white students and a 98 percent passage rate for Asian students.


Students with disabilities also struggle with the test, and a state law allows disabled students to receive a waiver from having to pass the exam to receive a diploma. Such students are encouraged to take the test, however.


Until the test’s fate is settled, “we continue to administer the (exit exam) as we have always done,” said the education department’s Hernandez. Current students have six more chances to take the test – still pegged to the state’s previous academic standards – before the school year ends.


It’s unclear how the mismatch between what’s being taught and what’s being tested might affect students.


On the one hand, the more rigorous standards associated with the Common Core could mean that students perform “as well or better” on the exit exam, said Jeannette LaFors, director of equity initiatives at The Education Trust-West, a nonprofit policy and educational equity advocacy group.


But “it could also be a real adaptation challenge for students,” she said, especially for students who require additional preparation and remediation classes to help them pass the exit exam.


“I don’t think that’s fair for students to have to be kind of caught in the middle there while our policy-makers figure out how to help them,” LaFors said.


“Whoever is in charge of that assessment plan,” she added, “I hope they are up at night.”