Do you go to school in California? Chances are you’ve heard of the CAHSEE – the exam all Californians need to take to graduate high school.
You might be wondering how to pass the CAHSEE. In this post, we will explain what the CAHSEE tests, what you need to do to pass, and how to study for it.
What Is the CAHSEE?
The CAHSEE (California High School Exit Examination) is an exam all California high school students must pass to earn a high school diploma. Students take the exam for the first time sophomore year, and retake it in later years if they don’t pass.
The exam has two sections – math and English Language Arts (ELA).
Most students, around 80% each year, pass the exam on their first try. In 2014, 85% of sophomores passed math and 83% of sophomores passed ELA.
However, the pass rate is significantly lower for English Language Learners (ELLs) and students with disabilities.
In 2014, 42% of special education sophomores passed math, and 39% passed ELA. Only 54% of ELLs passed math, and 38% passed ELA. The test is only given in English, making the ELA portion especially challenging for students still learning the language.
The CAHSEE is not designed to be an extra burden or especially difficult, and students are expected to pass with the basics of what they learn in high school. The goal of the CAHSEE is to ensure all California high school graduates have met a certain skill threshold.
However, if you’re worried about passing, this guide will give you the tools you need for success – and a California high school diploma.
What If I Fail?
Before we dig into the study guide, it’s important to know what happens if you fail the CAHSEE.
You will take the CAHSEE for the first time sophomore year. If you don’t pass a section, you will just have to retake that section – for example, if you pass ELA but fail math, you will only have to take math again. If you fail both sections, you will retake both.
You can retry the CAHSEE twice in junior year and up to five times senior year. So don’t stress if you don’t pass during sophomore year – you will get plenty of chances to retry the test.
If you don’t pass by graduation, you can try for up to two school years after. Depending on your district, there may be summer school or fifth year options to help you pass the CAHSEE and complete high school. Contact your school to find out their policy for students who don’t pass CAHSEE by graduation.
How To Pass The CAHSEE: English
The English, or ELA, section is mostly multiple-choice, though there is a written response section as well. It covers reading and writing topics.
To pass, you need to be able to comprehend and analyze passages, and also know the basics of English grammar and writing strategies. If you don't do much reading in your spare time, try to do a little every day, even if you're just reading articles online or books for fun. Daily reading can help you get better at reading comprehension, even on standardized tests like the CAHSEE.
This section is untimed, so unlike high-stakes tests like the SAT and ACT, you don’t have to worry about pacing.
The reading topics are:
- Word Analysis (7 questions)
- Reading Comprehension (18 questions)
- Literary Response and Analysis (20 questions)
The reading questions mostly consist of reading passages and answering questions about them.
The writing topics are:
- Writing Strategy (12 questions)
- Writing Application (1 essay question)
- English Language Conventions (15 questions)
This comes to a total of 72 multiple-choice questions, plus 7 additional unscored questions sprinkled in used to test out new question types.
The ELA section is given a scaled score between 275 and 450. A scaled score means they translate the raw scores (a.k.a. how many points you get from right answers) into a number between 275 and 450. Anything above 350 is passing.
There is not a set amount of raw points you need, since scaling can change from test to test. So you should aim to get a majority of the questions correct, though you don't need to shoot for perfection.
Your essay will be assigned a score from 1 to 4, with 4 being best. Two people will read it, and their scores will be averaged. Your essay won’t be scored if it is illegible, not in English, or off-topic.
How To Pass the CAHSEE: Math
The math section of the CAHSEE is all multiple-choice questions. It is untimed, so again, you don’t have to worry about rushing through.
However, there are no calculators allowed, so you have to do all math work by hand. If you rely on calculators to do multiplication and division, you have to practice doing math on paper.
To pass, you also need to have a pretty solid understanding of math through basic geometry and Algebra I.
Or practice on a chalkboard for some old-school cool.
The math section tests the following topics:
- Probability, Data Analysis and Statistics (12 questions)
- Number Sense (14 questions)
- Algebra and Functions: (17 questions)
- Measurement and Geometry: (17 questions)
- Algebra 1 (12 questions)
- Mathematical Reasoning (8 questions)
- Unscored trial questions (12 questions)
This makes for 92 total questions.
The math section is also scored between 275 and 450, with anything above 350 passing. Again, aim to get a majority of the questions right, but don't worry about being 100% perfect.
CAHSEE Study Guide
So now that you know what's on the CAHSEE and how many chances you will have to pass it, how should you study for it? And what can you use? We will show you how to come up with a study plan, what resources to use, and how to get help at school.
Score Report = Study Guide
After you take the CAHSEE, you will get a detailed report that says how well you did in each topic. For example, it will say how many Algebra and functions questions you got right, in addition to giving an overall math section score.
If you failed the CAHSEE the first time, don’t get overwhelmed by the score report saying all the things you did wrong. You don’t have to fix every single mistake to pass – you just need to fix enough to get above 350.
Use your score report as a study guide. Start with the sections you missed the most questions on and focus on learning that material first.
As an example, say a student got the following score report for math:
- Probability, Data Analysis and Statistics: 7 / 12
- Number Sense: 11 / 14
- Algebra and Functions: 3 / 17
- Measurement and Geometry: 2 / 17
- Algebra 1: 2 / 12
- Mathematical Reasoning: 4 / 8
While this student missed points in every section, they have the most work to do in Algebra and Functions, Measurement and Geometry, and Algebra 1. Since those topics build on each other – you need to understand basic algebra before getting Geometry and Algebra 1 – they should start by studying Algebra and Functions, and then move onto Geometry and Algebra 1.
Also, those sections also happen to be the largest, with 17 questions each for Algebra and Functions and Measurement and Geometry, and 12 questions for Algebra 1.
So if they can improve their scores in those three sections, they will be on track to pass. If they have extra time, they can review the other sections. But they should focus on learning Algebra and Geometry skills and practicing problems in those sections.
If you haven't taken the CAHSEE yet, start with the official study guides (which we will link to below) and focus on what is most difficult for you.
Gather Your Resources
You won't need tons of books to study for the CAHSEE, since there are many resources online. Make sure you have studying basics, though, like a notebook, pen, and earplugs if they help you focus.
Before you start studying, you need some materials! Luckily, there is a free, official CAHSEE study guide online and tons of practice questions for each section – way more questions than actually appear on one CAHSEE.
The study guides will walk you through what problems are going to be on the CAHSEE, and what you need to know. Start by reading the study guides before moving onto the practice problems. To do the practice problems, either print them out or look at them on the computer. (You can use a blank notebook to keep track of your answers.)
Doing the practice problems is also important so you get used to the format of the CAHSEE. When you correct the problems, don’t just mark what you got wrong and tally your score, try and figure out why you got the question wrong and what you didn’t know.
Pretend It's The Real Thing
You don’t have to time yourself while practicing, since CAHSEE is untimed, but remember to simulate test conditions by not using a calculator or any outside resources. If you don’t know a question, circle it. Come back to it later and figure out what you would need to know to get the question right.
Schedule, Schedule, Schedule
Make studying for the CAHSEE part of your weekly schedule. Put it in your calendar like it’s another class or sport. By making CAHSEE studying a set part of your weekly routine, you can retain information from week to week and make sure you get plenty of practice.
Also, make sure when you study you find a quiet room without distractions. Whether that means finding a table at your school library or asking your family to give you some space after dinner at night, make sure you find a good study spot. It’s very hard to focus with distractions around, especially other people.
Find School Resources
Of course, you shouldn’t try to study completely on your own. Your school probably has resources for CAHSEE studying – it’s a goal for every California high school for all of their students to pass and graduate!
Some schools have CAHSEE classes you can take. Others have after-school or Saturday study sessions. While it’s not fun to have to give up after-school time for studying, even just a few sessions could help you learn what you need to pass, and you might study faster than you would on your own.
Is this the coolest place to spend a Saturday? No. Can it help you pass CAHSEE? Yes.
To find out how your school helps students with CAHSEE, go to the guidance counseling office and ask about CAHSEE classes and resources.
If your school doesn’t have these, you can find a math and an ELA teacher to help you study. Ask if they can explain topics that you don’t understand, or to help go over practice test answers with you. Some schools also have peer tutoring, and you can ask for help there as well.
If you receive special education services, ask your school’s special education department coordinator about resources for CAHSEE, including accommodations you might not have received that could help you pass.
If you normally get accommodations on tests, you should be able to get the same accommodations for CAHSEE.
English Language Learners
If you’re an English Language Learner, ask your school’s ELL coordinator about accommodations you can get on the CAHSEE, including bilingual dictionaries or a read-aloud test.
Remember, it’s in your school’s best interest for all students to pass the CAHSEE. Don’t be shy about tracking down resources that can help you.
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Halle Edwards graduated from Stanford University with honors. In high school, she earned 99th percentile ACT scores as well as 99th percentile scores on SAT subject tests. She also took nine AP classes, earning a perfect score of 5 on seven AP tests. As a graduate of a large public high school who tackled the college admission process largely on her own, she is passionate about helping high school students from different backgrounds get the knowledge they need to be successful in the college admissions process.