One in 10 California high school seniors will not receive a diploma this month because they failed the state's high school exit exam, according to data released Thursday by the state Department of Education. Students who are Latino, black, English learners or poor were disproportionately represented in the failure rates.
State Supt. Jack O'Connell urged the 41,758 seniors across the state who had not passed the exam to continue striving to receive their diploma, in summer school, independent study or community college.
"Their education is simply not complete, but they are still welcome and still part of the public-school family," he said. "We will find a place to help them prepare for their future."
Under state legislation approved seven years ago, the class of 2006 is the first that must pass the exam, which tests basic math and language-arts skills, to earn a diploma.
Beginning in their sophomore year, students have six chances to take the exam. A score of at least 55% on the math portion, which is geared to an eighth-grade level, and 60% on the English, which is ninth- or 10th-grade level, is required.
The passage rates released by the state Thursday include results for students who have taken the exam through March, but do not include May scores. Those results will be available this summer, but not before schools across the state hold ceremonies and award diplomas.
Some districts are allowing students who have not passed the exam to participate in commencement ceremonies if they meet other requirements. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the 2,564 seniors who have not yet passed the exam will be allowed to walk with their classmates if they meet all coursework requirements; took part in a remediation program; retook the exam their senior year; and enrolled in a summer program to prepare for the test in July or October.
About 86% of the district's seniors, or 25,779 students, have passed the exam, according to the district.
"I believe this is a test students should be able to pass," Los Angeles Supt. Roy Romer said in a written statement. "We will now make every effort to provide supplemental instruction in the summer months to those remaining students who will need to pass the [exit exam] to receive diplomas."
Statewide, white and Asian students were more likely than their Latino and black classmates to pass the exam. English learners had the worst rate of passage, with 1 in 4 unable to pass the exam.
"There is an achievement gap in California. We know this, we admit this," O'Connell said.
In Santa Ana, where 60% of the students are classified as English learners, 81% of seniors passed. Of the 529 seniors who haven't, more than four-fifths are English learners, according to district officials.
Supt. Al Mijares said it was vital to find ways to help struggling students.
"Telling your kids to run faster or jump higher or telling your staff to teach better -- those are pat answers that are too simplistic and will never render effective results," he said. "If they don't have the right kind of programs in place, they're not going to make it.... It's incumbent upon adults to provide the resources, the time and the staff to help them be successful because the test will mark the rest of their lives."
Critics of the exam, such as attorney Arturo Gonzalez, who has sued the state on behalf of students, said the disparities showed the exam was unfair.
"Whether intended or not, the result is to deny diplomas to thousands of poor kids who have managed to overcome substantial barriers to staying in school and that is a travesty," he said.
The San Francisco attorney filed a lawsuit questioning the exit exam. A lower court initially struck down the exam on the grounds that it posed an unfair hurdle for poor and minority students in subpar schools, but in late May, a divided state Supreme Court reinstated the exam. An appeals court will consider the case in July.
That's too late for students like Ashley Daigle, an 18-year-old Chino Hills High School student who passed the English portion on her first try but learned last week that she failed the math portion for the fourth time. Her principal called her into his office to personally deliver the blow: She received a 346 on the exam, four points shy of passing.
"I bawled," said Daigle, who hopes to become a show business makeup artist or hair stylist. "I went straight home and cried for like an hour."
Daigle had been taking daily classes devoted to the math section of the exit exam, as well as studying at least half an hour every day on Internet coursework and a workbook.
She hasn't decided whether she will take the test again when it's offered in July. "I'm kind of just fed up with it," she said.
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Almost 10% of the state's 436,200 high school seniors had not passed the California High School Exit Exam as of March.
Class of 2006 students who have passed the exit exam
By percent, as of March 2006
African American: 83.2%
All California seniors: 90.4%
*Includes students in ethnic-based categories
Source: California Department of Education