MOVING ALONG: Students leave Santa Monica High School after school on Thursday. (Daniel Archuleta

SMMUSD HDQTRS — Tenth graders in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District trounced their state and county counterparts in a high-stakes test that determines whether or not they can receive a high school diploma.

The California High School Exit Exam, or CAHSEE, is required by law to show that students have a 10th-grade mastery of English and an understanding of math up to algebra by the time they leave high school.

According to state figures, 94 percent of SMMUSD students passed the English portion of the test on their first try — up 1 percent from the 2010-11 scores — and the math portion held steady at 92 percent.

Statewide, 84 percent of the over 450,000 10th-grade students who took the math test this year passed, and 83 percent got through the English test. Overall, 95 percent of high school seniors had passed the test by graduation.

If a student doesn’t pass the test in 10th grade, they have up to seven more chances to take it before leaving school.

The test is a benchmark to prove that students are learning, not just putting in “seat time” in school, said Maureen Bradford, director of educational services at the district.

“I think it serves its purpose in many parts of the state where we want people to understand that (a diploma) does mean something,” Bradford said.

As with other standardized tests in SMMUSD, the CAHSEE revealed gaps in the passage rates between white and Asian students and their African-American and Latino counterparts.

Ninety-seven percent of Asian students and 96 percent of whites passed the test, while 88 percent of Hispanic students and 82 percent of African American students did so.

The same achievement gaps exist in the exit exam as in other tests, but it can be more difficult to see the way the numbers are presented.

The exit exam only requires that you pass the test, a lower standard than the “proficiency” needed on other exams, Bradford said.

CAHSEE first began counting toward students’ graduation in 2006, although it was tested out on 10th graders in years prior.

This year’s test-takers marked the sixth year of improvement on the test, said Tom Torlakson, the state superintendent of public instruction.

“When 95 percent of California students are hitting the mark — despite the tremendous challenges we face and the work we still have to do — there’s an awful lot going right in our public schools,” Torlakson said.

Still, he worried that the state could see those trends reverse as more and more dollars are cut from education budgets, resulting in shorter school years, fewer teachers and crowded classrooms.

“While I’m happy about the progress made by the class of 2012, I still have concerns for the class of 2013, the class of 2014 and all of the classes that will follow,” Torlakson said.

Although the exit exam can be useful to make sure high school graduates aren’t just being passed along through the grades without some learning, some education experts still have questions about the standards set for students.

The CAHSEE is important to keeping schools accountable, but it doesn’t show the whole picture, said Arun Ramanathan, executive director of the Education Trust-West.

“We slap ourselves on the back for CAHSEE rates, but tell me about our (Early Assessment Program) and how many students are in remedial classes,” Ramanathan said.

The Early Assessment Program is a test developed by the State Board of Education, California Department of Education and the California State University system to measure how prepared students are for college.

“Should we be having a low-level test like this constitute high school graduation requirements?” Ramanathan asked. “I think it’s more about whether or not we have real standards for performance in our schools, whether or not teachers and school systems are preparing students for those standards.”


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