Cahsee Essay Tips For High School

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.

1. Math study guide

2. Math released questions

3. ELA study guide

4. ELA released questions

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.


Special Education

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.


What’s Next?

Also studying for the ACT or SAT? Learn how to improve a low math score.

Learn about colleges with the highest admission rates to help start your college planning.

Come up with a target SAT or ACT score based on colleges you want to attend.


Many states use high school exit exams as a means of maintaining graduation standards across public high schools. In these states, exit exams are required for all public school students, and you must pass them to earn your high school diploma. It may sound scary, but they're really not all that bad. In this article, I'll go into detail on what exit exams are, what they're like, and how to make sure you pass!  


What Is a High School Exit Exam?

A high school exit exam is a test that you must pass to receive your high school diploma. These exams typically include a math section as well as an English language arts section that incorporates reading and writing skills. Some include science and social studies sections as well. Sometimes states have a series of standardized exams administered throughout high school rather than just one. These are often called “end-of-course exams” because students are required to take them upon completion of specific high school courses in various core subjects. There are some states that require students to pass a set of end-of-course exams in addition to a comprehensive exit exam. 

Exit exams are popular because they provide proof that a state's high school students are meeting basic educational standards. On a school-by-school basis, they are also sources of information about the quality of education at different high schools. Exit exam results can inform educational policy decisions at the state and national level.

Of course, there are those who dispute the merits of exit exams, arguing that they impose unnecessary stress on students and are essentially meaningless assessments. These detractors might make some good points about the dangers of placing too much value on exit exams, but most students still have to come to terms with the realities of testing requirements. 

Twenty-four states administered exit exams for the Class of 2014, but policies change from year to year. Some of these states plan on eliminating their exit exam requirements (like California, which recently suspended its administration of exit exams), while other states plan on adding exit exams to their educational policy in the next couple of years. With the recent implementation of new Common Core Standards, there are lots of changes happening with these tests. Many states are moving towards making exit exams more challenging to align with new curriculum benchmarks.    


Alas, the sun has set on the California high school exit exam (or CAHSEE).


How Do Most States Administer These Exams?

Each state has its own assessment system, and tests may be administered earlier or later in high school depending on the state. As an example, Texas requires students to pass two types of exit exams. The first is the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), taken in 11th grade. There is also the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR), which is a set of end-of-course exams taken at various times depending on when a student finishes a course. The TAKS has sections testing language arts, math, science and social studies. The STAAR includes tests in the following subjects: English 1, 2, and 3; Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2; Biology, Chemistry, and Physics; World History, US History, and World Geography. 

Another example is Massachusetts, which has fewer requirements than Texas. Students are expected to pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test in English language arts and math in 10th grade. Students are also required to take one end-of-course exam in biology, chemistry, introductory physics, or technology/engineering in either 9th or 10th grade. Most of these states have basic exit exams that cover math and language arts, but many of them also add end-of-course exams in other core subjects as requirements for students. I’ll discuss general exit exams in the next section (math, reading, and writing tests) that are common across all of these states. 


Lovely Boston, Massachusetts, proud home of the MCAS (and PrepScholar). 



Is It Hard to Pass an Exit Exam?

Typically, high school exit exams are not very demanding tests. In most states, 80-90% of all students pass these exams. In one analysis of exit exams in Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, and Texas, it was found that the tests mostly covered material in math and language arts that students should have learned in 7th through 9th grade. Passing cutoffs are also very forgiving. 

You shouldn’t worry too much about your state's test if you’ve been doing well in high school. Unless you’re in the lowest 5-10% of students in your class GPA-wise, it’s highly unlikely that you will fail your exit exam.  I’ll give a quick overview of what the material is like and why an exit exam is relatively easy to pass.

For math, you’ll need to know basic algebra and geometry. Most of the questions on the math sections of these tests ask you to perform a certain operation rather than challenging you to develop your own mathematical model to solve a problem. This can vary slightly across states, but, in general, the math skills required to pass are not at the more advanced level that many students reach by the end of high school.

For the reading components of these exams, the focus is on basic reading comprehension, including the understanding of main ideas, vocabulary, and details in a passage. Exit exams tend to have very few questions that require deep analysis (which is troubling considering how important this skill is for college!). For the most part, questions test lower-level reading skills like making basic inferences and recalling information from the passages. Passages typically consist of both literary and informational texts that are written at an accessible level for the majority of high school students.

In the study mentioned above, across the different states, the difficulty of reading material on exit exams was roughly equivalent to that of the material on the ACT’s assessment for 8th and 9th graders. Some of it was at the same level as the 10th grade ACT assessment, but none of the questions were on par with the material tested on the real ACT.

Separate writing sections are also a component of exit exams in certain states. Some states choose to assess writing skills purely by giving students an essay prompt and grading them on their responses. Many also include multiple choice questions that test basic skills in grammar and sentence structure alongside the essay requirement.

Exit exams can be a hassle, but they shouldn’t stress you out if you’re doing all right in your classes. They are far less challenging than standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, and the passing cutoffs are generous.  


Much more generous than these cutoffs, I'll tell ya that much.


What Happens If I Don’t Pass My Exit Exam?

Different states have different policies for students who fail these exams. Sometimes, students are allowed to submit high school “portfolios” of their work in place of a passing score on the exam. In the majority of states, remedial instruction is offered to students who fail the exams along with retesting opportunities. Remedial classes may be held during the school day or in the summer. In most cases, students will have up to four chances to retake the test. If you're curious about the options you have if you fail your exit exam, ask a guidance counselor or teacher how your school handles these situations. 


How Can I Make Sure That I Pass My Exit Exam?

The best way to ensure a passing score on your exit exam is to stay on top of things in your core high school classes. If you’re performing at an average level or higher (B average or greater) you should have absolutely no problem passing the exam without any preparation. If you’re worried that you’ve forgotten some of the skills that will be tested, you can always go back and review material from previous classes. 

For example, you might want to revisit certain algebra and geometry concepts that you learned earlier in high school. You could look over common geometrical terms and formulas since questions about how to find angle measurements within triangles and how to calculate the distance between two points (the distance formula) are common. Topics in algebra such as the properties of exponents, factoring, and properties of functions also show up on these tests. 

You can take a high school exit exam practice test and do practice questions online for most of the state assessments. Ask a teacher or academic advisor for information on practice materials for your state assessment. This will help you to get a better sense of what the tests are like and how worried you should be about them. If you’re concerned about the reading and writing sections, you could try writing a practice essay based on an old prompt and doing official practice reading questions. This will help you get more familiar with the types of passages that are on the test and know how to structure your workflow for the essay.

You can practice reading the passages more efficiently if you tend to run out of time, but keep in mind that you don’t need to earn a perfect score. Unless the questions make you feel completely lost, you will probably pass your state's exit exam!


As long as you have a basic sense of direction, you won't get lost.


What's Next?

Already thinking about your college prospects? Find out which year of high school is most important to colleges in the application process. 

If you're concerned about your current GPA, read my strategy guide for some pointers on how to improve. 

If you're working on figuring out your schedule, read this article for some advice on which high school classes you should take. 


Want to improve your SAT score by 240 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:


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