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California high schoolers show gains on exit exam

But the achievement gap for poor and minority students persists.

August 24, 2007|Howard Blume | Times Staff Writer

More seniors are passing the state's high school exit exam, but failure rates among poor and minority students remain disproportionately high, and dropouts are not counted in the state's numbers, the state Department of Education said Thursday.

As of May, the pass rate for the class of 2007 was 93.3%, a 2.1 percentage point increase over the class of 2006 for that period. The pass rate also was higher for some lower-scoring groups, including African American students, who saw a gain of 4.7 percentage points. Latino students saw a gain of 3.1 points, and economically disadvantaged students 2.6 points.

"What a difference a year makes," said state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell. "The exit exam is now an accepted part of our accountability system. I like to call it the capstone."

The figures also do not include students with disabilities, who have been exempted from passing the mandatory exam.

Because of dropout rates and other factors, graduating classes at urban high schools in Los Angeles and elsewhere are typically less than half the size of ninth-grade classes.

Critics have alleged that the exit exam pushes many students to drop out while unfairly denying diplomas -- which translate directly to higher wages and job opportunities -- to students who would otherwise qualify. Parents and activists sued the state on grounds that students were being penalized for a system that had failed them.

State officials estimate that 3% to 6% of seniors fail to graduate solely because of the exit exam. Students can take the test multiple times, beginning in 10th grade. Since last year, nearly 5,000 seniors statewide who failed the exam and didn't graduate have since passed the test.

Exam opponents made little headway in court and finally settled litigation in exchange for an agreement to codify in law programs to help students pass the test. Such efforts are already in place throughout most of the state. School districts, for example, can receive $500 for every senior who has yet to pass the test. The terms of the settlement await ratification by the Legislature. A lawsuit over whether disabled students must take the test is continuing, officials said.

The current test results reflect a persistent achievement gap based on both student poverty and ethnicity. As in standardized test score results released last week, poor white students are outperforming Latino and African American students not classified as at or near the poverty level.

Reflecting that trend were the pass rates among 10th-graders taking the test for the first time in Oakland, a heavily minority district, said Deb Sigman, the state's testing director. The pass rate was 60% on the English portion of the test and 61% on the math portion. For white students, the pass rate was 89.4% for English and 88.1% for math.

Another disappointing result: The performance of 10th-grade English learners in 2007 taking the test for the first time declined compared with previous years. However, state officials are hoping that further review will show that to be a statistical anomaly based on a different group of students taking the test.

Numbers in the Los Angeles Unified School District reflected the general trends. The pass rate overall for the class of 2007 was 87%, compared with 86% for the class of 2006. Since last year, many students from the class of 2006 have retaken the test, boosting their current pass rate to 90%.

But many schools in Los Angeles have found the test a high hurdle. The pass rate at Jordan High in South Los Angeles, for example, was 56%. Unlike the state, L.A. Unified includes in its pass-rate calculations disabled students taking regular classes.

The English test is written to ninth- and 10th-grade academic standards. The math test includes material from Algebra 1 and seventh-grade math.

"We see some closing of the achievement gap, but we still need to do much more," O'Connell said. "We know all students can learn, and all students can learn to high levels."

To see how your child's school fared, go to http://latimes.greatschools.net, type in school name, click on test scores tab, then STAR results.

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howard.blume@latimes.com

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