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Some Students Fear It's a Case of 'No Exit' Exam

June 08, 2003|Sue Clark | Sue Clark is a counselor in the Irvine Unified School District.

"I'm boycotting this test," Karen said a few days before the California High School Exit Exam was to be given. Her eyes defied any comfort I might give as a counselor.

Juan, sitting across from her, said, "Miss Clark, is it true we can't graduate if we don't pass this test? 'Cause I'm not graduating if that's true."

He closed his notebook and slumped at his desk. "Forget it, dude. We work so hard to make up our credits and then, bam, we're dropping out."

Jack, who would win any debate but had trouble with writing, looked disgusted. Some of the other students were nodding in agreement.

I stood in their classroom and had no comfort to offer. "Look at it as a practice," was the best I could do. I addressed one student who ran track. "You know how you run those 10K races and don't want to stress? You think of them as practice runs." He nodded. "Well, just do that with the test." He looked unconvinced. I added, "You can take it again this summer."

Karen wasn't buying it. "I am going to boycott. I learned about boycotts in eighth grade."

"Karen, take it as a practice and come to see me after the testing is over. I'd like your opinions on it for a letter I'm going to write." She agreed.

I, too, dreaded this test. I knew there would be tears, anger and frustration, by faculty and students alike at our continuation school. It would be one of our worst weeks.

For a while, I had thought that there would be so many lawsuits, the state exit exam would just go away. So did many of my colleagues, but, like death and taxes, it seemed to be here to stay. Never mind that our district was losing millions in funding again this year. Never mind that many of the students at our school had struggled for years at the comprehensive high schools and were starting to blossom with us. Never mind that we had many students with learning disabilities, family tragedies or English-language deficiencies, problems that had propelled them into an alternative setting.

They must pass this test or be barred from graduation.

The adults given the task of organizing this inquisition were already worn out. Proctoring would be a nightmare. The seniors, exempt for the last time, were jubilant. The underclassmen were scared.

The first day of testing arrived. I walked around the room, giving pats on the shoulder and encouraging glances. We were not allowed to explain any questions. All we could do was nod and look positive. Some students looked bewildered; others were angry. They had been promised that with hard work they could make up their credits with us and graduate with their class. Now it felt as if we had betrayed them.

I noticed Karen throwing down her carefully sharpened No. 2 pencil. I walked over and patted her shoulder. She was not comforted. My colleague, who had organized the testing, was afloat in a sea of test booklets and roll sheets. Who was not here? If they weren't here today, they couldn't take the English test, part two, the next day. Who had passed English but not math? We had the lists, but our population was transient. Some came to us swearing they had passed it at another school, possibly confusing the exit exam with the Stanford 9. Others had not brought transcripts, having been here only a few weeks.

We called for more proctors, and the math teacher came down to help. She did what I did, patting a shoulder here, offering a tissue to a crying student there.

I stood by a student who had recently come to us from a Middle Eastern country. He had been raised speaking Arabic, had just a few years of English, and had suffered a family tragedy. I was worried he was not up to speed in either language. He was one of the sweetest-natured students I had known this year. I was worried he would fall apart. But he smiled at me and gave me a thumbs-up.

On Friday, after the three days of testing, Karen appeared as promised.

"Here's my opinion: I think it's stupid," Karen said. "When I found out you guys would help me actually get a diploma, I worked so hard here. I got straight Cs for the first time in my life. My parents were so happy when I showed them my report card."

She had regained her hope of receiving a diploma through this school, she said. "You guys tell us to try our hardest, so we do. Then we get told we might not graduate?"

Karen promised to keep studying to take the test again after the summer. "But you know," she said, "we're all gonna be dropouts."

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