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Support for School Exit Test Renewed

Superintendent of public instruction says the state should not delay the scheduled June implementation of the math and English exam.

January 07, 2006|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

California's education chief reaffirmed his support for the state's new high school exit exam Friday, rejecting calls from civil rights groups to create alternative graduation measures for students in the Class of 2006 who cannot pass the test.

Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said the math and English exam -- set to take effect as a graduation requirement in June -- is necessary to ensure that students leave high school prepared for high-level jobs.

"If our students are to thrive in this increasingly global economy, they must have the skills measured by our high school exit exam," O'Connell told reporters in a conference call. "There is today no practical alternative."

But critics assailed O'Connell, saying the test would impede students who failed it but passed their other high school requirements.

An independent analysis last fall estimated that about 50,000 high school seniors would not pass both sections of the test and thus could not graduate in June.

"Thousands of qualified students will be shut out of diplomas and job opportunities," said John Affeldt, managing attorney at Public Advocates Inc., a nonprofit San Francisco civil rights law firm. The firm helped craft failed legislation that would have allowed alternative graduation measures, such as portfolios of student work.

The exit exam is geared to an eighth-grade level in math and ninth- and 10th-grade levels in English. Students have to answer only about half of the questions correctly to pass and can take it multiple times. The test was originally slated for the Class of 2004, but disappointing passing rates led state officials to delay it two years.

O'Connell, who wrote the 1999 law that created the exit exam, cannot change or delay it himself. Legislation would be required for that to occur. But his voice is an influential one in education circles, and his public statements were viewed as a blow to those who wanted to soften, or halt, the exam and a boost for supporters.

"Supt. O'Connell should be commended today," Jim Lanich, president of the group California Business for Education Excellence, said in a statement. "The exit exam will ensure students graduate high school with basic skills and a diploma that means something in the real world. We should be encouraging rigor in our schools, not backing away from it."

The graduation requirement would not apply to special education students this year because of a pending agreement with disability rights advocates that would delay its enforcement until 2007.

O'Connell's announcement came a month after hearings in Sacramento to consider alternatives to the exit exam. The superintendent said he had considered several options, including a different state test, the use of student portfolios and assessments developed by local school districts.

He said he rejected the substitutes amid concerns about quality, time and costs.

Legislation to create alternative measures also was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last fall, at O'Connell's urging.

O'Connell said, however, that the state would provide opportunities for students who do not pass both portions of the exit exam this spring. He said, for example, that students could still take classes to prepare for the exit exam in adult education programs or community colleges or through independent study programs.

"This does not mean, as some have said, that those students who have been unable to pass the exam will be denied a diploma indefinitely," O'Connell said. "It simply means that their basic education is not complete and they must continue ... to obtain the necessary skills to warrant receipt of a diploma."

Several advocates who had hoped for alternative approaches criticized O'Connell for taking so long to declare his position.

One critic from the Morrison & Foerster law firm in San Francisco vowed to sue the superintendent to stop the graduation requirement from going forward this spring.

"This is completely unfair to these kids," said Arturo Gonzalez, a partner at the firm, which sued the state in 2000 over allegations that it provided inadequate resources to students in low-income areas. "If a student passes all other requirements, they ought to be given a diploma."

Administrators in the Los Angeles Unified School District are scrambling to help students pass the exam, which will be offered this winter and spring. Schools will offer exam preparation classes during the school day, after school and on Saturdays, said Bob Collins, the district's chief instructional officer.

"A lot of these kids are so close to passing the exam," Collins said. "We have a lot of kids who have the skills but just don't [do] well on multiple-choice tests."

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