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Want an exit exam? Spend the money

May 21, 2006|Jennifer Washburn | JENNIFER WASHBURN is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles and a fellow at the New America Foundation.

THE RECENT court ruling clearing the way for students who flunked California's high school exit exam to receive their diplomas anyway was frustrating to anyone who wants the state to reclaim its former glory as home to the nation's greatest public education system. The fact that 47,000 students lack a rudimentary proficiency in either eighth-grade math or 10th-grade English is appalling. More appalling is that the exam doesn't test 12th-grade proficiency.

The unpleasant truth is that decades of severe financial neglect have undercut the ability of the state's public education system to administer the exam equitably. About 61% of the students who haven't passed the test come from low-income households, and 44% are English-learners. According to a UCLA study, schools where more than 70% of the students in the class of 2006 flunked were six times more likely to be critically overcrowded, 11 times more likely to be seriously short of fully credentialed teachers and three times more likely to have half of their math classes taught by teachers not certified to teach mathematics.

Instead of appealing Alameda County Superior Court Judge Robert B. Freedman's decision with June graduation so near, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell and the Legislature should lay the foundation for a more equitable relaunch of the exam in 2010.

A four-year delay is regrettable, but three decades of insufficient funding and a huge influx of non-English-speaking immigrants into classrooms have diminished the quality of the state's public schools. California continues to spend well below the national per-pupil average on public education, and on national standardized tests, it ranks close to the bottom in student achievement.

In 1999, the Legislature sought to boost performance by requiring all students to pass the exit exam, with the class of 2004 the first to take it. By spring 2001, however, more than half the students hadn't passed a trial run. The California Board of Education voted in 2003 to postpone the exit exam, pushing it back to the class of 2006. O'Connell admitted that "not all of our students have had the tools to succeed," particularly in low-income districts.

In August 2004, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger suddenly announced that the state was settling a long-running lawsuit, Williams vs. California, alleging that it had violated the state Constitution by failing to provide students in low-income school districts with the same basic educational tools that wealthier districts received. As part of the settlement, the Legislature passed five bills setting higher standards for certified teachers, school facilities and textbooks, along with an improved tracking system to ensure greater equality. But these reforms came too late to benefit the class of 2006.

States that have successfully used exit exams to boost student achievement without increasing dropout rates have emphasized the need to employ multiple types of learning and personalized remedial courses and training. In late 2005, the Legislature did vote to spend $20 million on test-prep courses, but the money was too little, too late.

Unfortunately, California's post-exam planning was worse. When the exit exam ruling came down, the Legislature was still considering various bills, initiated by O'Connell, to boost spending on adult education and other post-high-school remedial programs. This last-minute push indicates that California was woefully unprepared for the tens of thousands of students due to "drop out" of the system in June without a diploma.

Freedman's decision could be a blessing in disguise. It gives the state time to address two urgent needs: fully credentialed teachers in all schools, and enhanced remedial programs, especially for nonnative English speakers, before and after the exit exam to prevent dropout rates from skyrocketing. If the exam is to be successful, California will have to ensure that teachers have the resources to close learning gaps among students rather than simply have its educators teach to the test.

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