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The bar is low enough

September 18, 2005

IF PASSING GRADES OR SENIOR REPORTS signified that students were fit for a diploma, there never would have been a high school exit exam in the first place. Now that the exam is on the eve of being required for a diploma -- starting with the class of 2006 -- a bill has made it through the Legislature that would set the whole process back by a decade.

AB 1531 by Assemblywoman Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) would allow school districts to come up with their own assessments for students who flunk the test. This could involve a special project or a portfolio of work.

Without the exit exam requirement, high schools for years have been graduating teenagers with substandard skills, sending them off to colleges and jobs for which they are not fit.

Employers find these under-prepared graduates cannot fathom a simple instruction book or make a mathematical calculation; they can't pass a test that would qualify them for an apprenticeship to the building trades.

Bass' bill would allow mushy measurements of basic subject mastery that could be prone to abuse. How does the state know that a student hasn't cheated on one of these special projects? Local school districts, which would control and grade the assessments once they are approved by the state, have a vested interest in boosting their graduation rates with a false "pass."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger should veto the bill. The exit exam is fair, though some adjustments are needed for students who are still learning English and those in special education.

Under the test, students must show a basic understanding of eighth-grade math and ninth- and 10th-grade reading and writing skills. It doesn't require real mastery even of those skills; students can pass by getting 55% of the math questions right and 60% of the English. They have six chances to take the test, and get a full school day to complete it.

Passing rates for Latino and black students are discouragingly lower than those for white and Asian teenagers, but the rates for all groups are improving markedly as more schools step up remedial work and offer classes that are aligned with state standards.

Bass' concern is that the test might deny many poor and minority students a diploma, but isn't denying them the skills for a decent job far worse?

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