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Testing the High School Exit Exam

Sophomores act as guinea pigs to judge the effectiveness of what will become a requirement for students hoping to graduate, beginning with next year's freshmen.


Twenty-seven sophomores at Bassett High School in La Puente must have wondered this week why they drew the short straw.

There they were in the library by 8:58 a.m. Monday, settling in for three mornings of grueling test-taking. This was on top of the Stanford 9 and Advanced Placement exams--springtime rituals that students had already suffered, er, made it through.

Perhaps it cheered them to know they were making history. They were among 12,000 students selected to field-test the state's new high school exit exam.

Though the results won't matter for these students, they will greatly affect next year's crop of freshmen. The field-testing is designed to spot weaknesses in the exam, such as questions with cultural biases or questions that are too tough or too easy, and to direct any needed adjustments.

Under state law, the Class of 2004--this year's eighth-graders--will be required to pass the new exam at some point during their high school years to be eligible for diplomas. In the future, freshmen will be able to take it voluntarily. As sophomores, students who have not already passed the test will be required to tackle it. They will have many opportunities to pass it--at least three per year. Each time, they will face a substantially new version.

The graduation test, which will be given for real for the first time next spring, is intended to be the centerpiece of Gov. Gray Davis' ambitious efforts to boost the state's lackluster academic performance.

For high schoolers, it will represent the ultimate in high-stakes testing.

Given the quick turnaround time, it is a minor miracle that American Institutes for Research, a test research and development company responsible for the field test, managed to assemble the needed 824 items in math and English and language arts. At least one other major test publisher declined in January even to bid on the assignment, saying there was not enough time to do a thorough job.

"It's a fairly quick schedule," acknowledged Paul Williams, AIR's Palo Alto-based project director for the exit exam.

Scoring the Minimum Required to Graduate

AIR began developing or revising field-test items in February. Half the items were written from scratch by a dozen or so educators, most of them experienced test-item writers. The others were adapted from stockpiled items owned by the California Department of Education. Most of those had appeared on exams given many years ago and therefore had to be updated.

All the math questions and 400 of the English and language arts items are multiple choice. The other 24 language arts questions are "writing prompts," passages or questions to which students must respond in writing.

All the items are intended to test students' ability to meet California's challenging new academic standards.

Passing would mean that a student has achieved "the minimum level that the state expects all students to reach to qualify for high school graduation," said Bob Anderson, the state Department of Education's point man on standards and assessments.

Panels composed of educators, administrators, school board members, business executives and parents collaborated to recommend which standards should be tested.

The chosen standards in language arts run through 10th grade. In math, the cutoff is Algebra I, which students might take as early as seventh grade or as late as 11th.

"There was terrific consensus among the committee members," said Ruth McKenna, superintendent of the New Haven Unified School District in Union City, Calif., and a member of the language arts panel.

'Well-Educated Person' Is the Standard

The group, she said, selected areas of content that "a well-educated person" would generally be expected to know. For example, students would have to be able to identify and use the literal and figurative meanings of words but would not have to know how certain words had sprung from Greek, Roman or Norse mythology.

(The standards to be tested are listed in boldface on the state's high school exit exam Web site: The state Department of Education expects to release sample items this summer, after Stanford 9 scores are posted in mid-July.)

By contrast with the exit exam, the Stanford 9, which is given to all California students in grades two through 11, is a standardized basic skills test that is not particularly well aligned with California's content standards.

Students participating in the exit exam field test hail from 200 schools, including 24 in Los Angeles County. AIR chose schools based on students' performance on the reading comprehension portion of the Stanford 9. The schools reflect the broad range of achievement in the state, from low to high.

AIR, which is getting $1.8 million for its work on the field test, is developing more items for another test run in the fall. Its contract expires at year's end, at which point the Department of Education will invite bids from companies interested in developing and administering the exam over the long term. Anderson said the program is expected to cost more than $10 million a year.

Patti Sako, principal of Bassett High, said she was eager to have the school participate in the field test. "We wanted to be in on the ground floor," she said.

She was surprised by the length of the test: about six hours. Teachers are already frustrated by all the testing. Even before the exit exam came on the scene, she said, "I was hearing complaints from teachers: 'When do we have time to teach? We're testing, testing, testing.' "


Times education writer Doug Smith contributed to this story.

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