The percentage of high school seniors who have passed California's new exit exam has remained stuck at a little less than 90%, putting about one in 10 at risk of being held back from graduation, according to figures released Thursday by the state Department of Education.
About 7,000 seniors passed the test in February out of approximately 46,000 who took it, state officials said. That increased the total number of seniors who have passed the test to a little less than 390,000.
At a news conference in San Jose, state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell put the results in a positive light, saying that "more students are passing with every administration of the exam." He pointed to figures showing that nearly half of those who passed in February are learning English as a second language and that more than half are poor.
"So we are making steady progress with students who face the most challenges, and that's good news," O'Connell said, "because every student needs to have the skills necessary for success in this new global economy, and that's what we're measuring with this exam."
Students are allowed to take the test beginning in the 10th grade, and a majority pass it then. The exam is designed to ensure that students graduating from high school have attained eighth-grade skills in math and ninth- or 10th-grade skills in English.
Although the number of students passing the test rose, the percentage remained almost unchanged, at 89.3%, because the pool of students grew, O'Connell said.
The state did not release results by district, but Los Angeles Unified officials recently calculated that 82% of their seniors had passed the test. That figure includes those who took the exam in February.
Students who are still taking the exam in their senior year tend to be those who have failed it repeatedly and are having the most difficulty in school. The test has proved especially difficult for students classified as English learners. About one-third of those students in the class of 2006 have repeatedly failed the test, according to state data. African American students are also lagging, with 19% still unable to pass.
Asked what could be done for struggling English learners, O'Connell turned to a student at Willow Glen High School in San Jose. Nattaly Martinez, who came to the United States five years ago from Mexico, said she had failed the exam several times but sought help from her teachers and ultimately passed. She now hopes to go to college and become a teacher.
The state has provided funding to districts to offer special classes, some after school and on Saturdays, for students having difficulty with the exam.
The results released Thursday did not include students who took the test in March. Those who failed will have one more chance, later this month, to pass before graduation in June. However, the May results will not be available until after commencement.
O'Connell said the state is letting each district decide whether to allow students who are awaiting results to participate in graduation ceremonies.
Those who fail in their senior year can continue to try passing the test. O'Connell said he is trying to locate funding to offer the exam in July.
The superintendent, who has been a strong advocate for the exit exam, said many of those failing it would not be graduating anyway, because they won't have passed all their required classes.
But he said it is impossible to know how much overlap there is between those failing the exam and those failing classes.