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Rate of passage of exit exam is the lowest yet

Officials cite inclusion of special education students for the first time this year as a key reason for the decline.

September 10, 2008|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

One in 10 high school seniors in the class of 2008 failed to pass California's exit exam by graduation, the lowest rate of passage since the test became mandatory to earn a diploma three years ago, according to data released Tuesday by the state Department of Education.

The estimated passage rate dipped, state officials said, because for the first time special education students were required to take the exam to receive diplomas, and their test results were included in the tally. Nearly half of special education students -- those with learning, physical or mental disabilities such as autism or dyslexia -- did not pass the exam.

"It's an unmitigated disaster for special education kids," said Sid Wolinsky, director of litigation for Berkeley-based Disability Rights Advocates, which unsuccessfully fought for alternative assessments for special needs teenagers, such as oral exams or work portfolios.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell defended the mandate.

"Far from holding students back," he said, "the exit exam requirement ensures all students who earn diplomas will have the basic skills essential to their success in the workforce."

Special education students' graduation rate dipped nearly 3 percentage points for the class of 2008 because of the requirement. O'Connell noted that special education students can continue in the state's public high schools until they are 22; and even after students are done with their traditional high school years, they can continue taking the exam until they pass.

But for prior classes, statistics show that most mainstream students who leave school without passing the exam do not keep taking it, and if they do, their success is mixed. In the class of 2006, nearly 39,000 did not pass the exam in time for graduation, and in the two years that have since elapsed, fewer than 4,800 have passed.

Excluding special education students, the class of 2008 showed a small uptick in those who passed, to 93.6% by last May.

As a state senator, O'Connell wrote the legislation that created the exit exam, which was signed into law in 1999.

Beginning in their sophomore year, students have several chances to take the two-part test. A score of at least 55% on the math portion, which is geared to an eighth-grade level, and 60% on the English portion, which is ninth- or 10th-grade level, is required.

For mainstream students, the class of 2006 was the first that had to pass the exam in order to get a diploma. Special education students were exempted the first two years, with the class of 2008 being the first required to pass the exam.

Efforts to narrow the achievement gap between white and Asian students and their black and Latino peers also showed little success, a situation O'Connell called "the civil rights challenge of our time."

"We know all students can learn . . . no matter what their economic status or native language," he said. "We must continue our efforts to close the achievement gap."

The skill level required to pass the exams has prompted criticism in some quarters as not stringent enough, and O'Connell on Tuesday confirmed that state officials are discussing raising the bar, although no changes are imminent.

Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero said such discussions must be put on hold until the state deals with special education students' needs. She and Assemblyman Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) have written companion bills that would extend the exit exam exemption for special education students through 2010 and develop alternative ways to assess their skills by 2011.

The bills passed both houses of the Legislature but have not been sent to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for his signature because he has threatened to veto any legislation sent to his desk before a state budget is approved.

The legislation would make all the difference to families like the Cavaneys of Los Altos. Their 19-year-old son, whose name they declined to give, was diagnosed with a language and listening learning disability as a young boy. Although he falters with written tests, he does well on oral exams, which is how he earned his driver's license. He went on to finish Los Altos High School with a 3.8 GPA, according to his father, Pat Cavaney, but he couldn't pass the exit exam, even after six tries. He didn't receive his high school diploma, but he did win a chancellor's scholarship to Foothill Junior College, which he is attending.

"I've got a child who, if he goes to even a Home Depot or wherever to apply, when he's filling out the application, he can't mark that he's a high school graduate," said Cavaney, who is chief operating officer of a law firm that unsuccessfully sued the state on behalf of parents and students to block the exit exam.

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

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