Nearly 100,000 California 12th graders -- or about 20% of this year's senior class -- have failed the state's graduation exam, potentially jeopardizing their chances of earning diplomas, according to the most definitive report on the mandatory test, released Friday.
Students in the class of 2006, the first group to face the graduation requirement, must pass both the English and math sections of the test by June.
The exit exam -- which has come under criticism by some educators, legislators and civil rights advocates -- is geared to an eighth-grade level in math and to ninth- and 10th-grade levels in English.
But the report by the Virginia-based Human Resources Research Organization showed that tens of thousands of students, particularly those in special education and others who speak English as a second language, may fail the test by the end of their senior year despite remedial classes, after-school tutoring and other academic help.
Teachers, according to the report, said that many students arrive unprepared and unmotivated for their high school courses and that their grades often reflect poor attendance and low parental involvement.
The group reviewed the test results as part of a report ordered by the Legislature when it instituted the exit exam several years ago.
Among its findings: 63% of African Americans and 68% of Latinos in the class of 2006 have passed both parts of the exam.
By comparison, 89% of Asians and 90% of whites have passed. The report recommended that the state keep the exam but consider several alternatives for students who can't pass.
"Clearly, we need to have some options for these students," said Lauress L. Wise, the firm's president, in a telephone interview with reporters.
The state, for example, could allow seniors to submit portfolios of work that demonstrate mastery of English and math, the report's authors suggested.
The report also proposed that schools allow students to spend an extra year in high school or earn diplomas by completing special summer school programs in lieu of the exam.
Additionally, the state could establish alternate diplomas or graduation certificates for students who pass part of the exit exam, the group said.
But California's superintendent of public instruction, Jack O'Connell, said he opposes any change that would diminish the worth of a high school diploma.
"It's important to keep one core principle front and center: awarding a student a diploma without the skills and knowledge to back it up does the student a disservice," said O'Connell, who added that his staff would study the options outlined in the report.
The exit exam was originally slated for students in the class of 2004. But disappointing passing rates prompted state education officials to push the requirement back two years. The state also shortened the test from three days to two.
Students get several opportunities to pass the exam in high school, and they have to correctly answer only a little more than half of the questions to succeed.
Even so, the exam has come under legal attack by disability rights advocates who fear the effect on special education students; just 35% of such students have passed both parts of the exam so far.
A bill recently approved by the Legislature, which sought to settle a special education lawsuit, would delay the requirement for another two years for many students with disabilities. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not indicated his position on the measure.
Special education advocates and others who oppose the mandatory graduation requirement called Friday's report a sobering wake-up call.
Opponents of the exam said that it penalizes minority students and those in low-income communities whose overcrowded schools often lack experienced teachers and other necessary resources.
"It's unfair to give this test because of the unequal school system we have," said Edgar Sanchez, who teaches U.S. history at Washington Preparatory High School in South Los Angeles. "Every day I see students go through conditions of overcrowding. Sometimes students don't have a desk to sit at."
Los Angeles High School senior D'Janay O'Neal had another complaint. She said she freezes up on the math portion of the test because "math has never been my strong suit."
D'Janay, 17, said she passed the English section on the first try but has failed the math part three times. She is taking an extra remedial math class this semester to help her pass the test, in addition to her Algebra II class and two Advanced Placement courses. She said she has a 2.0 grade point average.
"I am totally freaking out that I may not graduate," said D'Janay, who attended a rally against the exit exam this week in a park next to her high school.
"No matter what happens, I'm going to college because I need college to further my education," she said.
The high school protesters -- carrying banners that read "Educate Don't Terminate" and "Don't Judge Students By One Test" -- denounced the exam as discriminatory.
They called for Schwarzenegger to sign another bill that would allow schools districts the freedom to evaluate students through alternative assessments such as portfolios of work. The Legislature recently approved the bill, which is sitting on the governor's desk. Schwarzenegger has not taken a position on the bill, a spokeswoman said.