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40% of Local Juniors Fail High School Exit Exam

Education: Poor results on the state test in Ventura County put principals and teachers on alert. The students have seven more chances.


At least 40% of Ventura County 11th-graders have not yet qualified for high school graduation because they have failed the math section of the state's new exit exam, according to results released Monday.

The students will have seven more chances to get through both the language and math sections of the California High School Exit Exam before June 2004.

But the results so far mean teachers and principals have their work cut out for them in the next two years, particularly when dealing with students still learning English and those who come from poor homes, said Charles Weis, Ventura County superintendent of schools.

"It's serious business now," Weis said. "It's time for every high school to examine their own curriculum and instruction to make sure standards are being taught in those classrooms for all kids."

Statewide, 52% of students scheduled to graduate in 2004 still must pass one or more sections of the exam, a state report said. The test, a mix of multiple-choice questions and essays, covers language arts material that is supposed to be taught by the 10th grade, and mathematics concepts through Algebra I.

The test scores came from exams given to more than 6,300 Ventura County sophomores in the spring. Combined with results from the same class in spring 2001--when thousands of ninth-graders took the exam voluntarily--77% of local students have passed the language portion of the test and 60% have passed in math, according to estimates calculated by Weis' office.

Among individual school districts, results varied widely.

For example, in affluent Oak Park, 99% of this year's juniors have passed the language test and 91% have passed in math, leaving only a handful of students who need to worry about the test this year.

"It was pretty mind-boggling to me," said Principal Cliff Moore of Oak Park High School.

But across the county in working-class Oxnard, 51% of 11th-graders still must pass the math test, and 31% have yet to clear the language portion.

Gary Davis, superintendent of the Oxnard Union High School District, said the numbers concern him.

"I think it is the key challenge to high school education," Davis said. "All of these students must pass or they won't receive a diploma. That's a real problem to California."

Tutoring sessions before and after school have been offered on many campuses for the last two years, and several districts set up optional exit-exam intensive courses this summer.

But providing extra help is only one piece of the puzzle, educators said. Students must realize the seriousness of the exam and take advantage of the special programs being offered, Weis said.

Convincing them has proved difficult, however, in some of Ventura County's lowest-performing districts, where a greater percentage of students also must deal with social issues such as poverty and neighborhood violence on a daily basis. As a result, some school officials are shifting from optional assistance to required intervention.

At Oxnard Union's six high schools, students who didn't pass the language test in the spring were automatically enrolled in a new remedial reading course this fall, Davis said. The course curriculum is based strictly on the subject matter covered in the exit exam.

Students may only opt out of the class and replace it with an elective after they pass the language section of the test, he added.

Similar efforts are underway at high schools in Fillmore and Santa Paula, which have among the lowest exit-exam passing rates in the county, according to state data.

At Fillmore High School, 66 juniors have failed both sections of the exam. They are all enrolled in a remedial reading class in addition to the regular 11th-grade English course and a before- or after-school math tutorial class, said Assistant Supt. Martha Tureen of Fillmore Unified School District.

Of particular concern, she said, are those students classified as English-language learners. Fewer than one-third of them passed the language portion of the test countywide last spring.

In Santa Paula, where at least 60% of juniors haven't yet qualified for graduation, high school officials are preparing to launch a special exit exam "academy" that would focus on remedial math and reading concepts.

"It will be a tunnel toward passing the exit exam," said Supt. Bill Brand of Santa Paula Union High School District.

But such approaches are drawing criticism from some teachers, who question whether students will be robbed of a well-rounded education as a result.

"The majority of our kids are already passing the exam two years before they graduate," said Alicia Reynolds, a teacher at Puente High School in Oxnard. "I think we will figure out a way to get the others through it. But whether or not that actually results in a quality education remains to be seen."

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