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Many Nervous Juniors Are Put to the Test Again

Stress builds for high school students who must retake part, or all, of state's new exit exam.

August 27, 2004|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

Edith Nicolas is worried.

The high school junior from South Los Angeles dreams of going to college and becoming a pediatrician. But first, she must pass California's new high school exit exam.

Nicolas failed the math section of the test earlier this year. As she gears up for another try next month, she feels a giant weight on her shoulders.

"It's too much pressure," said Nicolas, who attends Manual Arts High School near USC. "I just want to get it over with."

Nicolas has plenty of company in the Class of 2006, the first students to face the graduation requirement.

Nearly 118,000 incoming juniors -- about a quarter of the total -- failed the math portion of the exit exam, according to scores released last week. A similar number haven't passed the English-language arts section. (No records are kept on whether the same test takers are in both groups.)

High school students ahead of these juniors got a break when the state delayed enforcement of the exam by two years, from 2004 to 2006, to avoid denying diplomas to tens of thousands of students who might otherwise pass all their high school classes.

Now that California has joined 19 other states that require exit exams, the prospect of mass failures has prompted schools to ramp up their preparation. Campuses such as Manual Arts are offering tutoring, Saturday classes and other assistance.

Students are allowed six chances to pass the test, starting in their sophomore year. They can retake it until they pass, including once in the year after they finish 12th grade.

"Right now we need to get as many kids through as we can," said Manual Arts Principal Edward Robillard. "We're going to do whatever we can to help."

Robillard and others added that students who don't pass can later enroll in the campus' adult school, where they will have unlimited chances to take the test.

Fearing the test will keep them from graduating in two years, some anxious 11th-graders are grousing about the new hurdle in front of them.

"It's not fair if kids are passing all their classes and they can't graduate because they have failed the test," said Manual Arts junior Alex Alcaraz, 16, who has to retake the math section.

In California, education leaders and school administrators are especially worried about high failure rates among minority students who attend crowded schools such as Manual Arts, a 4,000-student campus that operates on three schedules that slash 17 days of instruction off the school year. About 99% of Manual Arts students are African American or Latino and about 90% have family incomes low enough to qualify for free or discounted lunches.

The state's first batch of exit exam results showed that 74% of California's incoming 11th-graders passed the math section of the test and 75% passed the English-language arts section.

But just 54% of African Americans and 61% of Latinos passed the math portion. Only 62% of both groups passed the English part.

By contrast, 91% of Asians and 87% of whites passed the math portion, and the two groups did about as well in English.

Jack O'Connell, the state superintendent of public instruction, said the lower African American and Latino passing rates were cause for concern.

"These results don't point out that the children are failing. They point out that the system is failing the children," O'Connell said. "Are we providing the necessary tools and resources to ensure that our students are able to succeed?"

Some Manual Arts students answer no.

Junior Adriana de la Rosa, who grew up in Guatemala and struggles with English, said she would benefit from attention to fundamentals -- such as vocabulary development and reading comprehension -- rather than from reading "The Odyssey" in her English class.

"That's why I'm taking the classes on Saturday because I think I need more help with my English," she said.

The exam, which is offered throughout the year, is pegged to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade standards in math, including Algebra I, and to material through 10th grade in English. To pass, students need to answer only 60% of the English questions correctly, and 55% of the math questions.

State education officials last year shortened the test, from nine hours spread over three days to about 6 1/2 hours over two days; they eliminated one of two required essays and reduced the number of multiple-choice English questions.

Manual Arts teachers and administrators said they were doing all they could to make sure their students were prepared. Among other things, teachers say they closely follow the state's academic content standards on which the test is based. And school counselors met last month with incoming juniors who failed one or both parts of the test, recruiting the students for the Saturday classes.

Administrators sweetened the deal by raffling off prizes during the Saturday sessions, including movie tickets, Target gift cards, Best Buy gift certificates and a PlayStation game. The school newspaper, the Toiler Times, recently featured an article about the weekend classes.

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