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Diploma Penalty Misplaces Blame

October 06, 2002|JEANNIE OAKES and JOHN ROGERS | Jeannie Oakes is presidential professor and director of UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education and Access (IDEA). Professor John Rogers is IDEA's associate director.

Last Monday, the state released the latest round of scores on California's High School Exit Exam. More than half of the 431,000 10th-graders who took the exam last spring failed it--most for the second time. They will have more chances to pass, but unless something extraordinary happens, they can forget about a high school diploma. They can also forget about attending any of California's public universities, even if they've had all the right classes, gotten good grades and taken the SAT.

The exit exam is a blunt instrument, useful for exposing the California schools in greatest need of attention and resources. But it should not be used to bludgeon students whose misfortune it is to attend those schools.

Consider the prospects of 11th-graders at L.A.'s Crenshaw High School. After one month of school, many have not yet received textbooks for their classes. More than a third of their teachers lack full credentials. This is not an exceptional year for these students, who have faced similar or worse conditions year after year. Now, though, the state has come along and threatened their futures with a test that their school has not prepared them to take.

This is the same test that students at Palos Verdes Peninsula and Beverly Hills high schools take--students who, throughout their school careers, have been taught by fully credentialed teachers who are conversant with the curriculum standards on which the exam is based. They have had access to high-quality textbooks and they have learned in well-equipped classrooms that optimize instructional time. Should we be surprised that only 20% of Crenshaw's class of 2004 has passed the math portion of the test and 47% the language arts, compared with 95% of Beverly Hills High students in math and 100% in language arts?

Unfortunately, Crenshaw's 11th-graders are not unique. Many others are far worse off, particularly students of color, many of whom are clustered in the state's worst schools.

Statewide, 72% of the African Americans and 70% of the Latinos who took the exam last spring failed it. Of the 25 lowest-performing high schools in the state, eight are in the LAUSD. These facts reveal not the failure of children, but the failure of adults. Denying students diplomas because we have withheld what they need to achieve simply blames them for our state's failure to provide a decent basic education.

Consider the following:

* At high schools where math pass rates fall in the bottom 10% in the state, 24% of the teachers, on average, are without full certification. In contrast, only 8% of teachers lack credentials at schools where pass rates fall in the top 25%.

* Statewide, minority students are five times more likely than other students to have under-qualified teachers.

* Schools with teacher shortages also have the worst shortages of textbooks and instructional materials like calculators, measuring tools and graph paper for math classes. A recent Louis Harris poll found that 42% of teachers in schools with the largest concentrations of low-income children don't have enough books for their students to take home, and 21% use books that don't cover the state standards.

* One in three California students attends an overcrowded school or one in need of significant modernization, according to the state's legislative analyst. Some 70,000 high schoolers are in buildings so overcrowded that their schools must squeeze them into a multitrack, year-round schedule. Students lose 17 days of instruction each year as a result. To make up the time, their school day has been lengthened--an ineffective strategy, according to many teachers. Nearly all of these students are low-income Latinos; most are in Los Angeles. The average exit exam passing rate in math at these multitrack, year-round schools is 31%, while the rate of students on normal schedules is 58%.

Education leaders across the state have voiced concern this week about the failure rates. Some argue that the state should either back off its timeline or lower the bar for passing. Others argue for "staying the course" in order to maintain high standards and accountability. Such responses only foster cynicism and alienation. The problems revealed by California's high school exit exam won't go away by adjusting cutoff scores in order to make the failure rate less shocking. Nor is postponing the consequences a solution. These problems can be solved only by providing all students a real opportunity to learn what's on the test. That requires extraordinary action.

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