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State Exit Exam Gets Poor Grades

Test required for high school graduation in 2004 is unfair, many experts and students say.

March 04, 2003|Jenifer Ragland and Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writers

Jasmine Villa has taken the state's new graduation test three times. She has failed three times.

And though the 17-year-old Oxnard student says she still hasn't learned all the material on the nine-hour exam, she'll face it for a fourth time today.

"It's scary, every time, right before the test," said the Hueneme High School junior, part of the first wave of students who must pass to receive diplomas. "There's so much pressure. Constantly I'm thinking, 'What if I don't pass and I don't graduate?' "

Villa is among more than 100,000 teenagers who have failed the California High School Exit Exam at least twice, putting them at the center of a statewide movement to pressure Sacramento to drop or delay the requirement. About half of current high school juniors have passed the exam, so far.

Students, many from schools in poor neighborhoods, say they haven't been taught the material in their classes. They say they're bad test-takers, no matter how hard they try. They say the weight of the exam is affecting their performances.

And as state education officials continue to push for tougher academic standards, many of those young people and their parents are pushing back.

About 200 students, parents and teachers rallied last week outside the Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters to protest the exit exam, waving signs and chanting, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, exit exams have got to go."

Similar demonstrations are being organized from San Jose to San Diego. Student delegations plan to meet with state Board of Education members.

"When students have met every other requirement of graduation, to deny diplomas based on one test is unfair and unsound," said Abdi Soltani, executive director of Californians for Justice, a group that works to improve education in poor and minority communities and is leading a fight against the tests.

Officials Undecided

California education officials say they haven't made up their minds about whether to leave the Class of 2004 on the hook. A statewide study, due out in May, is looking at whether students have had adequate opportunity to learn the math and language arts concepts they need to pass the exam. Officials also want to see scores from this spring's round of testing.

Eighteen other states require similar exams, and recent national studies show that such diploma-linked testing has caused a spike in high school dropouts and a dip in graduation rates. Activists fear similar repercussions in California.

A State Board of Education member, Suzanne Tacheny, said a decision about whether to postpone enforcement of the exam will require "Solomon-like wisdom."

"Which trade-off is more important? If you delay the test until every kid passes, it's meaningless," she said. "What's the point at which you say it's been fair?"

Reed Hastings, president of the state school board, also warned that dropping the test wouldn't really help struggling students in the long run. The exam's contents, he and others say, are not unreasonably difficult; they cover language arts concepts through the 10th grade and math through basic algebra, often a ninth-grade class.

"The key is: Do the students have the skills they need in the economy of the future?" Hastings said. "A student who can't pass the exit exam is definitely at risk for not having those skills. The problem is not the exit exam. The problem is getting attention focused on those students and, in some cases, getting those students motivated to do the learning that's necessary."

The exit exam, a chief component of Gov. Gray Davis' school reforms, includes two sections, each with 80 multiple-choice questions, plus two essays spread over three days.

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

The test is offered as many as three times a year and students retake only the portion they have failed.

Of the estimated 459,588 students enrolled in the Class of 2004, about 48% have passed both sections of the exam, according to the most recent figures available.

Multiple Attempts

As many as 217,300 of them, now high school juniors, have either failed or not yet taken the math section of the exam. About 103,300 have taken and failed it twice.

In language arts, more than 140,000 have either failed or not taken it, and about 48,800 have failed twice, according to data from the California Department of Education.

Olivia Gomez, a junior with a 3.5 grade point average at Washington Preparatory High School in South Central Los Angeles, said teachers have not adequately prepared students, particularly in math, which is why she failed that section three times.

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