Nearly 89% of seniors have passed the California high school exit exam, but wide achievement gaps remain for poor students and English learners, according to new figures released Tuesday by the state Education Department.
Overall, 88.8% of seniors -- or 430,894 students -- have passed both parts of the exam, which measures reading and writing skills and basic math ability. About 93% of seniors have passed the English portion and 92% have passed the math part. Eleven percent of seniors, 47,925 students, have not yet passed either portion. Members of the class of 2006 are the first required to pass the exam in order to receive diplomas.
The figures are based on an independent evaluation by the Human Resources Research Organization, which analyzed tests as of November. Two more exams were conducted in February and March, and state school officials said they were hopeful that further gains would result.
"The numbers show steady improvement, indicating students are buckling down and that high schools are focused on making sure students have those math and English skills they will need to survive in the demanding workplace and economy," state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said at a news conference in San Diego.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 02, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Exit exam: An article in Wednesday's California section said 11% of California seniors had not passed either the math or English portions of the state's high school exit exam. It should have said 11% of the seniors had yet to pass both portions of the exam.
O'Connell wrote the legislation creating the exam when he was a state senator.
"Before our state put this exam into place, far too many students were graduating woefully unprepared," he said.
O'Connell conceded that more must be done to boost scores of poor, Latino and African American students. An estimated 69% of English learners, 82% of Latinos, 80% of African Americans and 82% of economically disadvantaged students passed the exam. By comparison, 96% of white students and 94% of Asian students passed.
Pass rates in California's two largest school districts were more varied. In Los Angeles Unified, 80% of seniors have passed the exam, officials said. Seventy-eight percent of Latinos, 71% of African Americans and 48% of English learners have passed.
In the San Diego school district, 75% of seniors have passed the exam, while only 29% of English learners have passed, officials said.
In San Diego, students who have not passed the exit exam, including those who will take the May test, will not be allowed to receive diplomas in graduation ceremonies, officials said. Los Angeles school officials have recommended to the Board of Education that such students not be allowed to participate in graduation ceremonies but be issued a certificate indicating they have completed course work and other district requirements.
Students in Los Angeles have been offered 20-hour "boot camps" and other specialized training to help them pass, officials said.
O'Connell is sponsoring a package of legislation that would provide for testing in the summer and on Saturdays, extra funding for remediation, creation of independent study programs and adult-school classes for students.
Those who leave school without a diploma will still have multiple chances to take the exam.
"This does not mean 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 their education in order to obtain the necessary skills to warrant receipt of a diploma."
The exam's standards are minimal, he said. Students must answer 55% of the questions correctly in what would be the equivalent of eighth-grade math and 60% in 10th-grade English. Over time, those standards should be increased, he added.
But critics have long complained that the exam places too much emphasis on one test and puts many poor and minority students -- already hobbled by attending inferior schools -- at a further disadvantage. They say other measures of achievement should be considered.
A lawsuit challenging the exam, which was brought by 10 high school students and their parents, argues that it presents an unfair hurdle for those who have met all other graduation requirements; the suit is pending in San Francisco Superior Court.
"What jumps out is the achievement gap that still exists and how little the state has done to remedy that," said Solomon Rivera, executive director of Californians for Justice, a grass-roots organization that promotes education reform.
"There is valid criticism of a single, high-stakes test. There should be tests and measurements, but a number of states that have higher test results than California use multiple performance assessments like essays, research papers -- projects that have real-life application and that prepare you for college or a job interview," Rivera said.