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California and the West

High School Exit Exam Left in Limbo by Senate

Education: Republicans reject Davis-backed measure, leaving students uncertain whether test will count or just be a practice run.

March 02, 2001|MARTHA GROVES and CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The status of the state's high school exit exam was thrown into limbo Thursday when state Senate Republicans voted down a key piece of legislation supported by Gov. Gray Davis.

As a result, ninth-graders preparing to take the two-part test March 7 and 13 still don't know whether it will be a trial run or the real thing.

The failed legislation would have made the upcoming version a voluntary practice test for this year's ninth-graders. It would have modified the original 1999 law, which requires all high school seniors graduating in 2004 and beyond to pass an exit test that they may begin taking as ninth-graders.

Republicans argued that accountability in schools is overdue and that testing should not be delayed.

The issue is not dead, however. Sen. Jack O'Connell (D-San Luis Obispo), the bill's author, got permission Thursday to have the bill reconsidered Monday.

Since the original legislation passed, testing experts have advised Davis that the test would not withstand a legal challenge if ninth-graders were allowed to take it under the current plan.

As it stands, because the test is voluntary in the ninth grade, the state would not be likely to get a complete set of students, which could skew the passing score and prompt lawsuits.

Court decisions in other states suggest that California should wait until all of its 10th-graders take the test next year, so that the state can set a valid passing score.

By doing so, the state could argue in court that it had a full cross-section of students answering the same test questions at the same point in their high school careers and being subject to the same passing score.

The exam will cover standards through first-year algebra and reading and writing standards through the 10th grade. Starting in the 10th grade, when the test becomes mandatory, students will have several chances to pass during their high school years. Those who don't pass cannot receive their diplomas.

Educators and administrators expressed frustration at the legal wrangling over the testing bill, SB 84.

"The last minuteness of it, I know has caused some real anxiety for school districts," said Carol Hatcher, a curriculum director in Kern County. "This has caused them to be in limbo about how much to stress taking the test."

On Thursday, the O'Connell bill making the test a practice exercise sailed out of the Assembly without debate on a bipartisan 66-0 vote. But in the Senate, the bill ran into a Republican roadblock and failed.

The bill required at least 27 votes in the 40-member Senate to send it to Davis for his expected signature. As an "urgency" bill, it would become law as soon as he signed it.

But it got only 20 favorable votes, all cast by Democrats, whose ranks were depleted by absentees. A frustrated O'Connell told the Senate that the bill must be passed to "protect these tests from potential legal challenges, and it needs to pass today."

But Republicans attacked it as an attempt to paper over alleged failings of the state education department and the public school system.

"There are those in the educational establishment that do not wish to be held accountable at all, so they want to throw out the test," charged Sen. Ray Haynes (R-Riverside).

Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, told Haynes that he was "appalled by the ignorance of your statement."

Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) contended that minority Republicans apparently had a newly found belief that Davis, a Democrat, might be politically vulnerable on the exit exam issue and were seeking to exploit that.

"If you want to stick it to the governor, why don't you do it in a way that is not sticking it to kids?" Burton asked.

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Groves reported from Los Angeles and Ingram, from Sacramento.

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