When Lauren Navratil heard the news, she panicked.
Ready to sit for a practice run of the new high school exit exam, she felt the weight of her future riding on her shoulders after learning at the last minute that it would count for real.
“I was so scared because I was not prepared,” the Ventura High School freshman said after taking the reading and writing portion of the test last week. “I needed more time. I can’t come back here after I’m a senior.”
The exam, the math portion of which will be administered Tuesday, is a new graduation requirement starting with the Class of 2004.
It is part of efforts by Gov. Gray Davis to boost the academic performance of the state’s students, more than half of whom perform below the national average, assessment tests show.
But fearing lawsuits challenging the validity of the test, Davis and Democratic lawmakers proposed declaring this year’s exam a dry run that ninth-graders could skip. State education officials had said they could use the results of the practice test to gather data on what skills students are lacking, in preparation for next year’s exam.
Most Ventura County educators had notified parents that the test probably would not count, but they encouraged ninth-graders to sit for the exam anyway to get their feet wet.
A bill declaring that the test would be for practice only was widely expected to pass in both houses of the state Legislature.
But less than 48 hours before the first portion was administered last week, Senate Republicans balked, refusing to support the bill, and it failed on a party line vote.
That last-minute switch frayed nerves and sent administrators scrambling to notify ninth-graders and their parents that the test would count after all.
It also prompted harsh words from local educators who complained that the students--mostly 14- and 15-year-olds--had been unfairly whipsawed by last-minute political wrangling.
“This is a high-stakes test for kids, and when it’s high-stakes, it requires the most professional level of management,” said Richard Simpson, assistant superintendent of the Conejo Valley Unified School District. “They’re playing around with kids’ lives, and I think it’s wrong.”
About 100 of the Conejo district’s 1,600 freshmen are sitting for the exam. The jockeying in the Legislature had prompted officials to change course and give the exam only to those students who requested it.
Previously, officials had planned to require every ninth-grader to take the test.
“It was too late to change plans [again] after the Senate acted,” said Martin Manzer, assistant principal at Thousand Oaks High School.
In the Oxnard Union High School District, officials sent students home with a letter the day before the verbal portion, notifying parents that the test was now for real. That prompted about 2,200 Oxnard district ninth-graders to show up for the exam, a huge jump from the 100 who signed for the exam when it was thought to be a practice run.
“We were able to accommodate everybody because of remarkable work by our staff,” said Assistant Supt. Gary Davis. “But this is no way to run a state-mandated testing program--with only 24 hours of notice to mobilize thousands of students.”
Panic, Confusion With News of Test
Students across the county reacted to the news of the switch--typically by an announcement over the public address system--with a mixture of panic and confusion.
"[The principal] told us it would count after we had been thinking it was just for practice,” said Tiffany Pokk, 14, a ninth-grader at Santa Susana High School in Simi Valley. “All this off-and-on talk. Why are we taking it at all?”
While Lauren, from Ventura High School, and others fear that an early failure could hold up their graduation, students will be given multiple opportunities to take the exam during their high school careers. Those experiencing difficulty will be given remedial help.
Still, students and parents wanted to get past the hurdle.
Debbie Finnila, the mother of a ninth-grader at Royal High School in Simi Valley, said she wished she had known the status of the test had changed. She would have sent her daughter, Megan, who was home sick with the flu, to school had she known, she said.
“I’m sure she’ll pass,” Finnila said. “She’s smart. But it would have been good to get it over with.”
Results are expected in about eight weeks, although state education officials have not yet set a passing score for the test.
Last week’s test was designed to take about three hours, but lasted more than five hours after instructions and paperwork.
Students said the test was long but not difficult. Billy Nilles, a freshman at Santa Susana, said it included a lot of reading.
Students were required to write two essays, one on a favorite character from a book or film. Billy chose to write about Pony Boy from “The Outsiders.”
The statewide exam replaces a high school proficiency test that has been a graduation requirement for more than 25 years.
It is intended to be more rigorous, covering math standards through first-year algebra and reading and writing standards through 10th grade.
The proficiency test, which will be phased out over the next three years, does not include algebra and is considered fairly easy to pass. Most students are successful on their first attempt, officials said.
But the new exit exam faces potential legal challenges.
Students in Texas filed suit over an exit exam there, claiming it was discriminatory because three-quarters of the nearly 100,000 students who were denied a diploma were either black or Latino.
A federal judge found no evidence of bias, but bias could become an issue in California if the passing score is based on a group not considered fairly representative of students across the state.
Test May Be Subject to Suit
Because the test was voluntary this year, it could have drawn a large number of high achievers who would skew the results.
Sen. Jack O’Connell (D-San Luis Obispo), who sponsored the bill that would have made it a practice test, said he was trying to address those concerns and protect the integrity of the exam.
“The legal people and the test experts recommended it,” O’Connell said.
He faulted Senate Republicans, who he said had now made the test vulnerable to lawsuits.
“I’ll point to them if it’s challenged,” he said.
Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) said GOP senators were seeking only to enforce school standards that the governor promised. He dismissed concerns about any potential lawsuits.
“Every test that is designed is going to be challenged,” McClintock said. “It is long overdue that we start establishing standards for our public schools.”
Beth Fruchey, director of special projects for Ventura Unified School District, said legislators on both sides of the aisle made valid points, but she questioned why they waited until so late to raise them.
The high school exit exam was adopted during Davis’ first months in office, but late last year, legislators began discussing whether it should be declared a practice run this time.
“These points should have been brought up a year or two years ago,” she said. “Why wasn’t it done in a more timely manner?”