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High School Exit Exam Faces Delay

A state panel wants to put off testing till 2006. Failure rates and political fallout are key.

June 14, 2003|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

California's high school exit exam, once heralded as a sure-fire way to ratchet up achievement and make a diploma worthwhile, will be postponed amid concerns about high failure rates and the political and legal backlash from denying thousands of students the right to graduate next year.

A majority of the members of the California Board of Education said they would vote next month to delay what was one of Gov. Gray Davis' central education reforms. By pushing back the requirement for passing the exam at least two years to the Class of 2006, board members said they would give students more opportunity to master the necessary English and math skills.

The test's original intent was to hold individual students accountable. But that goal has given way to a mixture of politics, ethnic anger and real concerns about the quality of education offered to students who have been repeatedly unable to pass the test -- even though it is geared to a ninth-grade level in math and a 10th-grade level in English.

The state's budget problems also have contributed to the situation as Davis conceded he has been too preoccupied with money worries to focus on sticking to the exam's original schedule.

Facing strong protests against exit exams, education reformers in California and other states such as Florida, Arizona and Alaska have been taught their own new lesson: It is one thing to publicize schools' bad test scores or to remove a principal at a failing campus, but an altogether tougher step to tell students and parents that passing four years of classes is not good enough to earn a high school diploma.

As the California board vote approaches, several education organizations and civil rights groups are lobbying to delay or drop the test.

Meanwhile, the Legislature already has taken up the issue on its own.

The state Assembly recently approved a bill to postpone the graduation requirement for two years and the state Senate is expected to take up the measure in a few weeks. Two lawsuits seeking testing accommodations for disabled students and a delay of the test are on hold, awaiting the state board's action.

Education experts said postponing the exit exam would send a mixed -- some said disheartening -- message to schools that have been gearing up aggressively for it.

"It leads to more cynicism that this too shall pass, like a number of other California education reforms," said Mike Kirst, a Stanford education professor and former president of the state education board who helped design the test. "You don't have a clear end game here."

However, Reed Hastings, the current education board president, called a two-year delay "smart policy." Like other board members, Hastings is fearful of the state being entangled in a lengthy and expensive legal battle that could undermine the exam.

"We want to ensure that we can sustain the political and legal challenges," he said.

Recognizing the inevitable postponement, state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell announced Friday that he was canceling July's administration of the test, which was to be offered six times a year.

The nine-hour test, spread over two days, includes multiple-choice questions and essays.

The material covers English standards, such as reading comprehension, word analysis, writing structure and grammar. In math, concepts include fractions, probability, linear equations and basic geometry.

Students have been required to first take it in 10th grade, starting with the Class of 2004.

O'Connell said he was confident that the board would follow his new recommendation for a two-year delay and, once it did, he said he then would cancel the two remaining test administrations this year -- in September and November.

"We want to give students fair and ample opportunity to learn. We want our students to do well," O'Connell said.

Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley, said the postponement would be "another brick pulled out of the governor's school reform agenda." He also cited Davis' decision last year not to fund the cash incentives to schools and teachers who help produce strong gains on other standardized tests.

"If this marks the slow death of the exit exam, then it really weakens the governor's high-stakes testing strategy," Fuller said.

In a recent interview, Davis said that he has been distracted by the budget deficit from getting involved in the testing debate but that he still believed he did the right thing by pushing during his first administration for the 2004 requirement. He said the test already has helped focus public schools on academic standards.

"We will have a high school exit exam. It will improve accountability. It will produce adults with better skill sets.... We have achieved it in principle. Now the question is, what [is] the best date to implement it," Davis said.

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