CHSPE Pros and Cons
A CHSPE (California High School Proficiency Exam, commonly pronounced “chispie”) certificate is the equivalent of a high school diploma. Having one makes your child a “legal 18,” which can be magic words in this industry. Basically, it means that your child is no longer legally required to attend high school (since they have essentially graduated), and therefore they do not need a set teacher. They are also allowed to work adult hours, including overtime. The exam is offered three times a year (generally March, June, and October) and is proctored like an SAT or other college entrance test. In order to be eligible, your kid must be either 16 or in the second semester of their sophomore year of high school. A link to the official CHSPE site is here.
Dove’s agent told us that when she passed the CHSPE it would transform her life. I thought that was probably exaggerating, but it turned out to be true. The month after we had the certificate is when she started booking roles, and getting auditions for leads, and she never looked back.
There are serious pros and cons to having your child take the CHSPE, and I wish someone had spelled them out to me. Ultimately we were glad that Dove took this route, but it is truly not for everyone. Here are some things to know.
Allows your kid to work as a “legal 18.” This means, as mentioned above, they can leave school, avoid dealing with a set teacher, and work as many hours as any adult. Life gets simpler. Work permits are no longer necessary. Studios love this because it is logistically much easier to hire a kid who can work a full day, and it is cheaper to not have to pay a set teacher. There is a kind of “sweet spot” for kids who can actually play their real ages, or a little younger, in their mid to late teens. You’ve seen audition listings for “submit 18 to play younger”? This is especially likely for lead roles. If your kid is a “legal 18” it increases their chances of being hired, because they are now on an even playing field with the 18-24 year olds who are going for those roles—but odds are that your kid looks a little more believable. To be honest, for kids who are 16 or 17 it can be very hard to get work if they have NOT passed the CHSPE, because they are competing with so many 18+ actors who are simply easier to hire. Those two years can be pretty dry otherwise.
The CHSPE is often confused with the GED because both are tests that grant high school equivalence to those who pass them. But you can’t take the GED until you are at least 18, so it is useless for kids who are looking to leave early. One nice aspect of the CHSPE is that if your child passes, they do not have to quit school. You can keep the certificate in reserve in case something great comes along, but stay enrolled in school until that time comes.
What no one tells you: once your child begins auditioning as a “legal 18,” that’s probably the only way the studios will want to hire them. This makes sense. But if you are trying to keep your kid enrolled in school just a bit longer, suddenly all of their absences are unexcused because the studio no longer is paying for a set teacher. Yikes! This happened to us: Dove decided to take one more year of high school even after she’d passed the CHSPE—largely because she was in love with the show choir program. But it made for a very stressful time as we skated right along the edge of the maximum excused absences all year.
This one is little more obvious but still bears noting: just because your child has the equivalent of a high school diploma, they do not necessarily have the high school credits to get into a great college or university! Leaving school early with a CHSPE certificate practically guarantees that they will need to spend some time in a community college making up some basic credits before they can transfer to a university. Many families make that choice in any event, as it is a much less expensive way to get a college education. But if four years in a university is important to your family, you may want to skip the CHSPE option.
You may also want to ask both yourself and your child if they really are ready, emotionally and physically, to work the hours of an adult. Kids at this age still need a lot of sleep and there is a wide range of maturity between the ages of 15 and 18. Are they prepared for the reality of this? Working adult hours in this industry (frequently 12 hour days) can be exhausting, and you don’t get this time back.
Finally, does your child have a strong drive to continue their education later? If education has been instilled as a high value, they will likely return to school when the time is right. But if you are concerned that this may not be the case, is it OK with you that their schooling may end before they finish high school? If not—maybe they should stay in school and skip the CHSPE option.
In our case, Dove’s career was looking promising enough– and we had an agreement that she would begin attending either FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising) or Santa Monica Community College that fall if no big acting work had materialized—so we both felt comfortable with her choice to leave school at sixteen. Frankly, we’d left conventional school approaches behind years ago. As it worked out, she shot Disney’s pilot Bits and Pieces about two weeks after completing her junior year, filmed a large guest star role on The Mentalist that August, and was cast in the movie Cloud Nine by September. Another guest star role, for Malibu Country, showed up in October. We found out in late December, just before leaving to shoot Cloud 9, that Bits and Pieces had been re-written with dual roles for her, and re-named Liv and Maddie. The Disney Channel series began filming a month after we returned from filming Cloud 9 in Utah. At that point, it was clear that college would be a conversation after Liv and Maddie ended its run, whenever that would be.
Taking the CHSPE is a very personal choice for both your child and your family. Talk it over at length before you take the plunge.
What questions do you have about the CHSPE? If your child took the test, did it make a difference for their career? Are you glad they took it, or not? Leave your questions and comments below.