Exit-Exam Story Fails the Test of Fairness

Mary Bergan is president of the California Federation of Teachers

The release last week of the test scores of ninth-graders who took the new California high school exit exam set off a flurry of hand-wringing. According to a San Francisco Chronicle article, only a fourth of the students would pass the math section and fewer than half the English section, "if state officials set the passing score at 70% or better."

Assemblywoman Virginia Strom-Martin (D-Duncan Mills), who heads the Assembly's Education Committee, was quoted as saying the scores were "abysmal." The headline, meanwhile, over a Times piece blared, "Most 9th-Graders Fail High School Exit Exam." State Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin was reported as saying: "The reality is that some of our schools are not adequately preparing all students . . . to pass the exam."

There are a couple of problems here--not with the accuracy of the reporting per se, but with its focus. The story was framed as "students can't make it past this test." This may fit into the comfortable old media box--that is, "Our schools are failing our children"--especially for the large numbers of readers who don't move their eyes past the headline and first paragraph or two. But it's not fair to the kids taking the test, to their teachers or to the schools to spin the story this way.

The actual passing score, as set by the State Board of Education the day the Chronicle article appeared, is 60% for English and 55% for math, not 70% for each. At these levels, nearly half of the ninth-graders pass the math and close to two-thirds pass the English portion. Not terrific but, perhaps, not abysmal, either.

One might quibble with the state education board for setting the bar lower than 70% for passing. But let's bear a few things in mind. The test is widely considered the most difficult of its kind in the nation. It's also so new that students were trying to answer questions about material that is in the official state academic standards but is not yet being taught in many classrooms. In fact, some of the material will never be taught in ninth-grade classrooms because it's 10th-and 11th-grade content.

Most important, these are high school freshmen we're talking about, not graduating seniors, taking an exit exam. The administration of the test is meant to give incoming high school students a taste of what they will face before they can graduate so they can better address their learning deficiencies along the way--and so resources can be steered to where they're needed the most. Contrary to the way the news media treated the event, the test should be viewed as a "getting to know you" assessment, not as a "high stakes" test. If the students could pass the test at this point, why on Earth would they attend high school for another three years?

Not noted in the story is a significant background element. The state Legislature failed to pass a bill that would have made the administration of the ninth-grade test a pilot, which would have achieved the goal of profiling problem areas without the stigma attached to students who didn't pass the test.

The one real worry nailed by the story's coverage is the achievement divide: The scores reveal a gap in the passing rate between white and Asian students, on one side, and African American and Latino students on the other. This isn't exactly news, nor is this phenomenon's portrayal precisely on target. Just about every standardized assessment shows the same thing: The single most accurate predictor of test score is the income level of the student's family. This factor gets lost behind the representation of scores by race.

Let's try being a bit more energetic in our pursuit of what education stories mean. "One-size-fits-all" clothing might work for some, but a lot of growth takes place between ninth and 12th grades.

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