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Delay in Exit Exams Weighed Due to Failures

Education: Only 48% of the Class of 2004 have passed the English and math portions of test, results show.


State officials are discussing whether to postpone enforcement of California's new high school graduation exam because so many students are failing the test.

Less than half of the state's current 11th-graders have passed both the English and math portions of the exam, according to results released Monday. Members of the Class of 2004 are supposed to be the first in California to prove their competence in the two subjects before they can be awarded a high school diploma.

They have two more years to pass the exam, but the results have educators worried even at this early stage. Next year, the California Board of Education is expected to review whether it is fair to stick to the schedule or delay the requirement for a future class.

"We don't want to eliminate this important tool, but we have to be reasonable," said Marion Joseph, a member of the state Board of Education. "[It's not] going to be acceptable if half the kids don't pass."

Rae Belisle, chief counsel to the state education board, agreed. "I think it's pretty clear that if we don't get better performance, there's a serious question about continuing the consequence for 2004," she said. "No one is going to sit there with half the kids graduating from high school in 2004."

Reed Hastings, the state board president, said that a low passage rate could leave the exam open to legal challenges about its fairness. A legally defensible goal would be a pass rate above 90% by the end of a graduating class' senior year, he said.

But he said it is too soon to predict whether the board will push back on the timetable. "The data is worrisome for us getting above a 90% cumulative pass rate, but it's not definitive," he said Monday.

Most current 11th-graders first took the test voluntarily two years ago. Those who passed both parts satisfied the graduation requirement; those who failed either part--or both--had to retake the test in 10th grade last spring.

Over those two years, 48% of the Class of 2004 has passed both the English and math sections of the test--which are geared between the sixth- and 10th-grade levels in the material and knowledge. For example, the math test includes algebra but not calculus.

The results also show a wide achievement gap between affluent and poor students, and between youngsters of different races.

Nearly two-thirds of whites, and almost three-quarters of Asians, have passed both tests over the two years, but less than one-third of African Americans and Latinos have equaled that mark.

Civil rights groups say the results reflect inequities in California's schools.

"When you look at what resources poor students and students of color have, it's abominable. Those need to be corrected," said John Affeldt, managing attorney with Public Advocates Inc., a public interest law firm in San Francisco that has filed a suit charging the state with offering substandard education in poor neighborhoods.

"These students are not receiving the same level of teachers, textbooks and facilities in which to learn. We have to provide them the resources to succeed."

The gulf between rich and poor was striking in some cases.

Take the Oak Park Unified School District, which serves one of Ventura County's most affluent pockets. There, 98% of current juniors who took the exam last spring passed the English portion and 91% passed the math portion. In working-class Oxnard, 35% of 11th-graders who took the math test last spring passed, and 58% cleared the language portion.

Farther south, in the mammoth Los Angeles Unified School District, which includes wide swaths of low-income areas, 45% of the students who took the exam last spring passed English, and 21% passed math.

"A lot of our youngsters that are going though the system are totally inadequately prepared for the 10th grade," L.A. Unified Supt. Roy Romer said.

Still, Romer said, the low scores are an opportunity to address the many challenges of large urban high schools that operate with large class sizes, shortened calendars and other hurdles.

This school year, the district launched a phonics-rich literacy program for secondary students who read below the third-grade level. Romer said the district also will offer a new course focusing on the math and English standards tested on the exit exam.

Holding up two new course booklets during a news conference, Romer said that he would order principals to set up after-school, weekend and intersession programs for students who are having trouble with the exit exam.

He also offered students an extra year at adult school, "a 13th year" to work on English and math skills needed to pass the exam.

"We have a system in which the culture has been to give [students] a D and let them pass," he said. "We're going to change that, but it's not going to change overnight."

The high school exit exam is a key piece of Gov. Gray Davis' testing and school accountability program.

Starting next year, the results will be factored into the state's annual school rankings.

Educators say the tests have had a significant impact in schools, forcing teachers to pay closer attention to California's new academic standards while prompting students to get more serious about their studies.

Educators said the most prepared students took the exam voluntarily in ninth grade, leaving less able students to try again in 10th, 11th and 12th grade.

"We've eliminated the 'quick studies' and are getting down to those students who are English-learners or just need a lot more help," said Mary Dalessi of the Anaheim Union High School District. Dalessi said her district will try to counter that trend by providing supplemental instruction.


Times staff writers Solomon Moore, Jenifer Ragland and Claire Luna contributed to this report.

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