Dear Superintendent O’Connell,
I am the son of an educator who spent his career working in the K-12 California public schools. I have also spent part of my career as a lawyer working on behalf of public school students, especially those with limited English fluency. I have two children who have attended public schools in Oakland all their lives, the oldest of whom will graduate Oakland High School this year.
Events have put great focus on the exit exam, and I am writing to urge you to take a serious second look at this policy. I have no doubt your intentions were the absolute best when you authored the law requiring the exam, but the questions about the efficacy of the exam compels a serious reexamination of it.
I personally watched with great interest the arguments made at the recent hearing in the Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland on the lawsuit filed to prevent the state from denying students a high school diploma solely on the basis of their inability to pass the exam. From that, along with what I have read in the newspapers, I have gleaned only two reasons for why this exam is deemed necessary: 1) it is good for businesses to know that a high school diploma means a certain minimum level of academic achievement, and 2) it will “encourage” students to study harder to be able to pass the exam, thereby enhancing their skills and employability.
The first reason, which is one the media has attributed to you, to my mind violates the principal of putting the needs of our children first and foremost. Having an exit exam requirement because it is convenient for business is simply not a good reason.
The second reason is what I call the “hammer” approach to education. If we cannot inspire our children to learn, then let’s scare them into learning. It is a punitive approach that is both wrongheaded and, in the end, counterproductive. The exam creates yet another barrier to a child’s success that may well discourage many into dropping out. Is it not better to say that, generally speaking, if a child fails to pass the exam it is not their failure, rather it is the failure of our educational system?
This begs the questions: is it not true that, because of learning disability, limited English, or some other such reason, some students will never be able to pass this exam? Are these children to be permanently stigmatized as failures?
I am sure you are aware of the fact that the state educational system has not provided all students remedial instruction to help them pass the exam, nor alternatives to passing the exam. I am sure you are also aware of the educational inequality that continues to plague our state, including inferior facilities and equipment, lack of adequate textbooks or other learning materials, lack of appropriately credentialed teachers, and other such things; and that these inadequacies disproportionately affect poor children who are disproportionately children of color. Given all this, respectfully, how can you still keep fighting so obstinately to enforce this exit exam requirement?
As I stated at the outset, I do not question your motives. I know that you care deeply about the educational advancement and future of our children. Your whole career is proof of that. However, I would like to propose to you an alternative way to try to accomplish the worthy objectives you have for California’s students.
Abolish or rewrite the exit exam law. Let all students who earn the necessary credits get their diploma, just as it has been done for many years. Do not condemn thousands of students every year to the devastating humiliation of being denied their diploma. Instead, if standardized exams must be used, use them to measure the academic progress and achievement of high school students so that we can use the results to find out which kids we are failing to adequately educate and give them some help. The purpose of such exams should be to figure out where we are failing our kids, not to determine which ones are failures. That is a much nobler and rational purpose than the punitive exit exam requirement. Educational policy should always be driven to exalt our children and to build up their hopes, dreams, knowledge, and chance for success, not to stigmatize or humiliate them and put up additional barriers to their success.
Victor R. Ochoa
Victor Ochoa is President of the Alameda County Bar Association and is a graduate of Stanford University and UC Davis School of Law. He has served as President and the Centro Legal de la Raza and is currently on their Board of Directors.