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Why do we even need exit exams?

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Posted: Tuesday, June 23, 2009 12:00 am

From the time a student enters pre-school in the state of California, they are tested on a regular basis. The early tests don't seem like "real exams" — pre-school and kindergarten teachers have a guide of "benchmarks" that students are meant to have reached before they can be promoted to the next grade.

But by elementary school, students are filling in the bubbles for standardized exams throughout the state.

The list is a little ridiculous. California students may take a combination of:

- the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) exam

- Physical Fitness Testing

- the California High School Exit Examination

- the PSATs

- the SATs

- the ACTs

- the California English Language Development Test

- class-related exams

- Advanced Placement subject tests

- college-placement exams

Some students even take all of these exams and maybe more. There are so many exams offered in California schools, it's a wonder that teachers have time to teach and students to learn.

In fact, during my years of studying for my teaching certification and M.A. in education, I found that teachers aren't really allowed to teach at all (at least not in history). The state curriculum speeds through subjects without going into depth on any of them, and with the time set aside for testing and the periods devoted to teaching students how to take the test, even some of that curriculum doesn't make it in. And the curriculum leaves out a lot — even with an amazing U.S. history teacher at Galt High School and reading on my own, I was completely ignorant of some of the "review" material studied in my college history courses.

And that's just information. Students are lucky if they get a teacher who has the classroom time to teach them how to learn — critical thinking, how to research and evaluate information, and so on. Most public school teachers have time only to teach students easily-regurgitated facts for later standardized testing.

Of course, there are also students who will not be going on to college — and there's nothing wrong with being a construction foreman rather than an architect, or an auto mechanic instead of an engineer. But these students, with shop and tech classes being cut to make room for "academic" classes (sorry, but classes devoted to rote memorization are often anything but academic), will also be completely unprepared for life after high school.

They could be learning valuable skills in wood shop or drafting classes, but instead are memorizing obscure vocabulary and learning how to complete questions like:


a. pedestrian : lameness

b. actor : aplause

c. doctor : diagnosis

d. swimmer : wet

e. writer : paper

(From here.)

So I can't say that I'm too disappointed to hear that the high school exit exam may be going away. Maybe we should cut a few of those other tests out, too. If they were working, our state and our country wouldn't be regularly slipping down the rankings in education.

If teachers didn't have to devote months of classroom time to teaching students how to properly fill in Scantron bubbles, maybe they'd have time to not only teach the curriculum, but go beyond it and teach students how to synthesize and critically examine what they learn, as well as how to "check the facts" and do proper research (instead of hitting up SparkNotes and Wikipedia).

Those are skills that will come in handy no matter whether a teen goes on to become an electrician, a police officer, a doctor or a NASA astrophysicist.