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State accused of inflating exit exam data

A UCLA professor says officials distorted the pass rate on the test required for high school graduation. Educators say the study was flawed.

May 08, 2007|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

California education officials put forth artificially positive results on the number of students who passed the state's controversial high school exit exam last year, according to a recent UCLA study.

The analysis also concluded that about 50,000 fewer students statewide earned diplomas last year compared to previous years, raising the prospect that the exit exam requirement is pressuring students to drop out. The decline in graduation rates was most pronounced in poor, heavily minority areas, the study found.

"We've constructed a system that sets in place incentives for disinformation," said John Rogers, the study's author and co-director of UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education and Access. "People who are making education decisions in this state need to think about how this policy is really playing out."

State education officials sternly defended the exit exam, criticizing Rogers' methods and saying his calculations were flawed. Although the test had been in place for several years, 2006 was the first time that students had to pass the exam to receive a diploma.

According to official state results, by March 2006 about 88% of California's high school seniors had succeeded in passing the two-part exam, which tests basic knowledge in math and English. (The final tally would eventually rise to more than 91% after late test takers were counted.) At the time, Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, who has led the move for the testing requirement, hailed the results.

Rogers concluded, however, that the state exaggerated the success rate since it excluded large numbers of students from its calculations.

Based on the total number of students who were enrolled in school when the class of 2006 had its first chance to take the exam as sophomores, the actual passage rate is closer to 78%, according to Rogers. The state's tallies neglected to count students who, for example, dropped out of school before passing the test and learning disabled students who were later exempted from the exam.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, enrolled more than 50,000 students as sophomores, but counted fewer than 30,000 seniors when it calculated the pass rate for the exit exam last year, according to the study.

Rogers further indicated a link between the exit exam and what he says was a precipitous drop in the number of students who earned a diploma last year. In L.A. Unified, for example, he concluded that only about 49% of the students who were enrolled as sophomores went on to graduate on time last year, while the rate was closer to 60% in previous years.

State and Los Angeles school officials flatly rejected the charge that they misstated the exit exam pass rates. Rogers based his conclusions on figures that captured only a static snapshot of enrollment and therefore do not accurately reflect those students who are still working to pass the exam and belatedly earn a diploma, they said. Students can try repeatedly to pass the exam, beginning in their sophomore year.

"We have been very upfront about how we calculated" the final figures, said Deb Sigman, testing director for the California Department of Education. "We're very comfortable with the way we have done that."

"He's extrapolating on very poor data," added Bill Padia, head of the department's assessment and accountability branch. "I think this is a misuse of data."

State officials declined to respond to Rogers' charges about falling graduation rates, saying that they had not yet released their official figures and therefore would not speculate.

Rogers' study was embraced by Public Advocates, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group that was involved in an unsuccessful lawsuit to block the exit exam. The group plans to present Rogers' report today to a state Assembly subcommittee.

In an interview, Rogers acknowledged that the data were not specific enough to conclude the exact effect the test requirement had on graduation rates, but said "something substantial occurred that reconstituted California's graduation rate."

What is clear from state data, he said, is that students who attended schools in mostly poor, minority areas were often learning from relatively inexperienced teachers and in overcrowded classrooms.

As a result, the failure rate on the exit exam in these schools was significantly higher than at predominantly white, more affluent schools.

Those inequalities have not been adequately addressed, Rogers said. Amid the protracted legal battle over the exam and intense political debate, Rogers said, O'Connell and other state officials were under pressure to show that the exit exam would not leave large swaths of students without diplomas.

A spokeswoman for O'Connell denied that charge, saying the state is offering remedial services to all students who have failed the test, including those who finished 12th grade.

One of the consequences of telling the exit exam story "in a successful way is that we do not pay attention to the conditions that need to be in place for all students to succeed," Rogers said.

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