Signing with an agent and getting cast in decent roles is a challenge for anyone in the industry at any age: for young actors aged 15-17, it can be especially challenging.
This is because most roles for that age group are actually played by actors either over the age of 18, or who qualify as a “legal 18” in the business.
If a studio has the option to hire an actor who can work adult hours and doesn’t need a studio teacher on set for the role of a teen, they are going to do that, because a legal adult is both cheaper (no studio teacher to pay) and easier (can work longer hours and overtime). The only exception to this is if casting truly can’t find someone they want over 18/legal 18 to play the role, or if they are going for a “name” actor who is still under 18.
Many talented young actors hit a “trough” in their career during these couple of years just because there are too many excellent 18-24 year olds who look convincingly young, and have the talent, training, and experience to win the roles over them.
What’s the solution? For some, it’s to start as early as they can so that when that challenging period comes up, they have the credits and reputation to be cast despite the fact that legal adults are competing for the same roles.
But many young actors don’t have that option—they start later, or simply don’t have the traction by the time they hit 15-17 to overcome the sudden increase in competition from older actors.
For some of those kids, the CHSPE is an interesting option. CHSPE stands for California High School Proficiency Exam. Passing the exam gives you the equivalent of a high school diploma, and grants the status of “legal 18” in the California entertainment industry. This means an actor who is 16 or 17 can legally work adult hours, including overtime, and no longer needs a teacher on set. They also no longer need a work permit, as their legal obligation for a high school education has been met for the state.
Some people hear about the CHSPE and their first impulse is: “sign me up!” But there are other important considerations before taking that route.
First of all, the CHSPE certificate is exactly, only what it says: a high school proficiency certificate. This means it serves the purpose of allowing a minor to be declared complete with high school from the point of view of the state and the industry. But it does not necessarily mean that a young actor has the credits needed to get into college. In fact, any young actor who takes the CHSPE much before the end of their senior year is basically guaranteed to NOT have the credits required for most universities, and so if they decide they want to continue their education, they will need to do some online school or community college to get those missing credits. This is not necessarily a problem—many families choose to save money by earning the first two years of a four-year degree at a community college– but it is a consideration.
And while the CHSPE grants what is commonly referred to as “legal 18” status, this is only true in the case of the entertainment industry: for all other legal purposes, including signing contracts, and having a Coogan account, a minor is still a minor. Which means that in order to USE the CHSPE certificate, an actor under 18 needs their parents’ permission to actually stop attending high school. Passing the CHSPE and becoming a “legal 18” is NOT the same thing legally as being emancipated.
Another thing to know about the CHSPE: passing it means you can choose to stop attending high school legally, but you don’t HAVE to. This is useful for kids who want the option of being hired as a legal 18 but still want to stay in school as long as they can.
However attending school after you’ve passed the CHSPE is easier said than done: if you have the certificate, a studio will most likely want to hire you on that basis. This means you will NOT get a set teacher, and your absences are unexcused. If you actually USE the CHSPE certificate for more than a few days (which could technically be written off as unexcused absences depending on your school policy) you are jeopardizing your ability to stay in school or at least have decent grades. So technically you can stay in school, but from a practical standpoint, you may not be able to if you actually book a job under its use.
Finally, there is another relevant point that the CHSPE is exactly what it’s called: the CALIFORNIA high school proficiency exam. States have individual requirements for what counts as high school proficiency. The CHSPE tests those requirements for California, and if a student passes the exam, they qualify as having completed high school by any person or institution subject to California law that requires a high school diploma for any person.
But what about someone who lives in a different state? This is where things get a bit muddy. If you are the legal resident of a state other than California, you would have to check with your state board of education to see if they will accept the CHSPE as valid. If you are a legal resident of a different state but come to California for pilot season and get work as a “legal 18” because you passed the CHSPE, that is a legal option in the state of CA– but if you remain the resident of another state, you still technically might have a problem with your home state and their legal requirements for staying in school if they don’t accept the CHSPE certificate as a high school diploma.
Similarly, if you are a young actor both living and working in a state outside of California, a CHSPE certificate may or may not be useful for you—it would depend on whether your state accepts the CHSPE as evidence that you have “legal 18” status. This is something, again, to check with your state board of education.
Each family should look deeply at this question, which is a very personal and individual one: if their young actor passes the CHSPE and leaves school (legally) at 16 or 17, will it be OK if that is as far as their formal education ever goes? Many young actors who leave school early to pursue their careers never go to college. If that happens, will you all feel OK about wrapping schooling at age 16/17? Ideally, an education is life-long. But we all know many people stop reading and learning when they don’t “need” to anymore.
Finally, it should be noticed that a young actor passing the CHSPE will likely be asked to work some very long days—on movie sets, the way the hours are counted, it’s not unusual to work a 15 hour day. This is hard for anyone, but especially for a teenager who may need more sleep than the average adult.
It’s a lot to consider. But education is important, and stepping away from formal learning to work full time when the opportunity allows is a choice that should not be approached casually.
In our case, we landed in LA when Dove was 14. She took and passed the CHSPE at 15 (she had skipped 8th grade, so finished her sophomore year a full year early at 15) and that was when she began getting roles. She spent one more year enrolled in high school, while the CHSPE certificate allowed her to audition for “legal 18” roles, and finally left school at 16, completing her junior year, and booking the pilot that eventually became Liv and Maddie. It was the right choice for us, but it is definitely not the right choice for every family.
The flip side of being an actor in the “trough” of 16/17 if you pass the CHSPE and can work as a “legal 18” is that you actually have the best of both worlds—you can play roles that you actually fit, age-wise. Sixteen can play sixteen. Which is kind of a sweet spot for casting.
On the other hand, this little dip in casting opportunities is a short one—a couple of years at most—and when an actor hits 18, the playing field is even again, at least in terms of age-related issues.
Who can take the CHSPE?
- Students at least 16 years old or older, or
- Students enrolled in the tenth grade for one academic year or longer, or
- Students who will complete one academic year of enrollment in the tenth grade at the end of the semester during which the CHSPE regular administration (spring or fall) will be conducted.
When is the CHSPE offered? Three times a year, typically in October, March, and June. The test currently costs $110 and the deadline for registration is about a month before the exam.
For more information about the CHSPE, go to: https://www.chspe.net/
Are you thinking about how to help your child become an actor? Or are you a young actor yourself?
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