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The test passes

A legal settlement wisely preserves the high school exit exam, providing extra help for students who need it.

August 16, 2007

Liliana Valenzuela was a high school senior with a 3.84 grade-point average who ranked 12th in her class. She could not, however, pass the English portion of California's high school exit exam and, by law, was barred from graduating.

Valenzuela became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit asserting that students should not be denied diplomas because their schools failed to prepare them for the exam. Indeed, plaintiffs argued, poor and minority students often attend low-performing schools, and the exam further discriminates against them. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Robert B. Freedman agreed and struck down the exam in May 2006.

Although the lawsuit had merit, it did not outweigh the importance of measuring students' achievements and abilities. So the settlement of the suit Monday was welcome news.

The exit exam was adopted because high school diplomas had devolved into mere certificates of attendance. Employers complained that job applicants lacked even basic writing and math skills. As it is, the exam does not require excellence, only competence. The English portion tests ninth- or 10th-grade reading and writing skills; the math portion tests eighth-grade skills. Students have all day to take each test, and multiple chances to take them. The passing scores are 60% for English and 55% for math.

Under the terms of the settlement, students who fail the exam in 12th grade can receive an extra two years of academic instruction from their school districts. It also provides up to two more years of intensive instruction in English. This is important, because about 40% of failing students are recent immigrants who haven't mastered the language. Districts will have leeway in how to best tailor these programs to students' needs.

Four years ago, almost half of the students who took the exit exam failed it. Although this was undoubtedly devastating for the students and their families -- Liliana Valenzuela among them -- the dismal results served some good. Schools rushed to improve remedial instruction, and the number of students who pass has risen by about 4,500 each year.

That's proof that the exam is worthwhile. And although the settlement will not solve California's education problems -- by itself, it does nothing to improve instruction -- it does what it can and what it should: It leaves the exam in place and provides some extra help for students who fail it but want to try again. The Legislature should approve this deal, and the governor should sign it.

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