The California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) is a requirement for high school graduation in the state of California, created by the California Department of Education to improve the academic performance of California high school students, and especially of high school graduates, in the areas of reading, writing, and mathematics; public school students must pass the exam before they can receive a high school diploma, regardless of any other graduation requirements. Students first take the test the beginning of their sophomore year. If they do not pass one or both of the two test sections, then they may retake the section or sections they have not yet passed. Up to eight test opportunities are available to students before the end of their senior year. The test was originally intended to be required of students graduating in the spring of 2004, but full implementation was delayed until the class of 2006. Approximately nine of every ten students ultimately passed by the end of the 2005-2006 school year. In 2010, 81% of 10th graders passed each of the two sections on their first try. The CAHSEE is divided into two main sections: English-language arts (ELA) and mathematics.
The English section includes about 80 multiple-choice questions and requires students to write one or two multi-paragraph essays. The essay portion provides a question that will prompt the student to write a persuasive essay, a business letter, a biography, a reaction to literature, or an analysis on the subject of the question. For example, in 2002, one group of students was asked to write an essay that persuaded people not to leave trash on the school grounds. Essay questions change with each test date. The essay portion is scaled out of one to four (with zeros given in special cases, such as for off-topic or non-English responses). The mathematics section consists of about 90 multiple choice questions. The English section tests students at a 10th-grade level, and requires a score of 60% to pass; the mathematics section tests students at an 8th-grade level, and requires a score of 55% to pass.
The number of students passing the test on their first attempt has risen slightly each year since 2004. More than three-quarters of students pass the test more than two years before they finish high school, and more nine out of ten students to pass the test by the end of high school. The passing rate of Asian and white students is higher than that of Hispanic and African-American students. Students learning English have the lowest passing rate, with one out of every four failing the exam in 2006. Passing the test was first required for the Class of 2006. As of June 2007, 91% of the 404,000 students in this class had passed the test before graduation, 1% failed the exam in 2006 but passed it in 2007, and 4% were still in school, either as fifth-year seniors or having transferred to a community college. As of February 2007, 91% of students in the Class of 2007 had passed both sections of the exit exam, an increase from the class of 2006.
CAHSEE Special education
High school students with documented disabilities are allowed reasonable accommodations to keep those disabilities from being an unfair impediment toward proving academic competence. Tests administered with accommodations do not interfere with what the test was designed to measure or with the student's ability to earn a legitimate diploma. For example, a student with visual impairments may need a copy of the test in large-print or Braille. If the student does not score the required minimum score on each test, he/she will not receive a diploma. Anything interfering with what the test was itself originally intended to measure is considered a 'modification' (for example, reading a test aloud to the student, if the purpose of the test is to determine whether the student can read), nullifying the results for graduation purposes. (These test results are still included in the calculations concerning school performance measures.) Schools offer modified tests to students with disabilities to let them participate, to the extent reasonable, in the normal activities of the school.
Beginning with the Class of 2010, eligible disabled students may graduate without passing the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE). Eligible students have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or Section 504 Plan that indicates that the student has satisfied or will satisfy all other state and local requirements to receive a high school diploma, except for passing the CAHSEE test. This exemption shall last until the State Board of Education either implements an alternative means for students with disabilities to demonstrate achievement in the standards measured by the CAHSEE or determines that an alternative means assessment to the CAHSEE is not feasible. Students with disabilities are still required to take the CAHSEE in grade ten for purposes of fulfilling the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
If a student has a severe learning disability an alternative test, the CAPA, can be given instead. This was intended to shorten the test for students whose chances of success on the CAHSEE were determined to be extremely low. There is no diploma granted under this condition, unless the student is exempted from needing to pass the CAHSEE anyway.
CAHSEE Effect on students
Many schools and districts allow students who had failed the exit exam, but met other graduation requirements, to participate in the public graduation ceremony, although they may not receive a valid diploma unless they qualify for exemption as a student with a serious disability. Some districts present these students with certificates of completion to recognize that they have met all other graduation requirements. The certificate of completion signifies completion of the required coursework and failure to meet the minimum standards set for either or both of the CAHSEE tests. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, Superintendent Roy Romer allowed those who did not pass the CAHSEE to participate in graduation activities if the student agreed to take the CAHSEE during the summer.
The California state legislature passed the CAHSEE into law in 1999, championed by then-state senator Jack O'Connell. The first students to take the test were volunteers from the class of 2004, who took it as ninth graders in October 2001. Initially, the test was intended as a graduation requirement for the class of 2004, but the State Board of Education later revised the deadline, focusing on the class of 2006.
Though O'Connell, by then the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, resisted the political pressure for a delay, the state legislature granted students with previously documented learning disabilities a one-year reprieve in 2006. In May 2006, an Alameda County Superior Court judge struck down the CAHSEE, ruling that students from disadvantaged schools, the majority of them with low income or recent immigrants, had not been appropriately prepared for the test. The California Department of Education appealed the ruling directly to the state Supreme Court, which reinstated the exam and upheld the CAHSEE.
The test has highlighted educational disparities by race, disability, income, and whether English is spoken in the home. This has been politically embarrassing for school districts, who were previously able to ignore their failures.
Alternative assessments, such as evaluating students based on a portfolio of class work, have been proposed and rejected. Alternative assessments consider a greater range of student work, but being non-standardized assessments, they are more susceptible to bias in grading. They are also much more expensive to grade, and concerns have been raised about cheating, since a student could present work created in a completely unsupervised setting.
Supporters of the test say that since one in ten students fails the test, despite having passing grades, then receiving passing grades in California high schools does not indicate that the student has learned the material. School grades may instead represent rewards from teachers "for being friendly, prepared, compliant, a good school citizen, well organized and hard-working" rather than mastering the subject material.