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Evading the exit

July 25, 2006

FIVE PERCENT OF CALIFORNIA'S high school class of 2006 have missed out on a diploma because of the exit exam, according to the latest figures. An additional 4% of seniors also failed the test, but they would not have graduated anyway because they lacked the required credits or classroom attendance. These statistics are worth remembering as foes of the exam ask the state Court of Appeal today to overturn it.

Three years ago, nearly half of the students taking the test failed it. Since then, after an unprecedented remedial push by schools and students, many tens of thousands have passed -- 50,000 more than just a year ago -- and those who have not will get another chance as early as this week.

The lawsuit claims, with some truth, that some schools let their students down, especially in math, by providing them with unqualified teachers. But that would have been true without the exit exam. Nothing has better revealed schools' weaknesses, and pressured them to improve, like their glaring failures on the exit exam. It may be unfair to deny students a diploma because their schools did a poor job. But the unfairness lies in the education, not the test. Things were more unfair when schools graduated hordes of seniors while doing little to make sure they had the minimum skills for a decent job.

Nor is it always a matter of bad schools. About 40% of failing students are recent immigrants who haven't mastered English. Despite everyone's best efforts, including theirs, it will take more time and study for them to pass. Graduating them without strong English skills is not the answer.

For these and others who are willing to keep working for a diploma, one option is community college. A growing number offer diploma-track classes; several programs can and do bestow high school diplomas without requiring passage of the exit exam.

That is a mistake. Community college officials assert that their programs are rigorous enough to ensure that students have learned the material without the exit exam. But educators used to make the same argument about high schools. The Legislature should close this exit-exam loophole before it becomes a popular way around the requirement.

The test is already proving its value. The students who have struggled, studied and ultimately passed -- who far outnumber those who must keep trying -- have more than a mere diploma. They have a diploma that means something. Neither the courts nor the Legislature should diminish that accomplishment.

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