State high school exit exam has its redeeming qualities

As a high school senior, I am pretty well-versed in the usual complaints people have about the California High School Exit Exam, or CAHSEE. Taxpayers hate it because they have to pay for a test that is criticized for being too easy, and therefore superfluous. Students like it because it is basically an institutionalized four-and-a-half-hour late start a few days every year. For the record, I do not exclude myself from this category.
Well, I am pleased to be able to report that I passed the CAHSEE the first time I took it, two years ago. And yes, it was pretty easy. And no, I don’t know anyone personally who didn’t pass their first time. But that’s not what’s important — the point is that I took it at all.
Essentially the CAHSEE is a standardized test that every high school student must take to graduate, as mandated by the federal government in 2006. Regardless of what classes you’re in or if you are planning on going to college, there is a set of standards that everyone in California must meet and pass. If not, consequences can be significant. You can’t go to college, you’ll have trouble getting a job, and unless you’re Augusten Burroughs and willing to sell your soul for the memoir royalties, you’re pretty much stuck.
I think it is easy for a lot of students to smugly discount the CAHSEE as a flaw in the system because they personally don’t have any trouble with it, to run their gums about how frightful it is that America has set its standards so low for the common man, and gab with their friends about the decline of intellectualism (come on, I know I’m not the only one) — without really stopping to consider what the CAHSEE actually means for us.
Perception of the CAHSEE is generally, well, negative — probably because it does indicate flaws within the California public school system. But as for the CAHSEE itself? Be proud when you take it March 17 and March 18, my fellow students! Be proud to support it, California taxpayers! The United States is among the only nations in the world that require each and every one of its citizens, regardless of race, background, gender or politics, to obtain a basic education. This includes immigrants who are just learning our language and customs, students who are debilitated by uncertain circumstances at home, and even those with physical or mental handicaps, as of 2008. Last year, California had roughly a 90 percent pass rate. All things considered, I’m not entirely sure that’s something to be ashamed of.
So yeah, America has lower standardized test scores than most of the developed world. But the key word is standardized. Obviously China leads the world in science and math scores; besides the fact that a student must be a veritable genius to go to school past the age of 12, secondary education is extremely specialized. Students in Hong Kong might be able to recite their entire physics textbook to you at any given moment, but try asking that same student a question about history, or writing, or any other subject for that matter. Americans should be proud that our nation has not simply pandered to increasing test scores for the sake of increasing test scores, maintaining a continued Renaissance-inspired commitment to a (relatively) equal, well-rounded education for every man, woman and child.
I’m not saying we don’t have room to improve. I’ll be the first to admit that this past autumn, when I first heard about the Russia-Georgia conflict, I wondered (out loud), “What could Russia possibly want with Georgia? The peaches?” Let’s just blame that one on the system, shall we?
I hate to get all sentimental, but in its essence, as it was intended to be, the CAHSEE ensures the preservation of the American dream. It ensures that we are all given the same opportunities, that we all start off on the same general playing field, and allows our ambition and dedication to drive us from there. Maybe this is one the California state government may have put more thought into than its usual bureaucratic shrug of the shoulders (“Uhh the budget? — I’ll be backkkk … ”).


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