Jasmine Villa has taken the state's new graduation test three times. She has failed three times.
And though the 17-year-old Oxnard student says she still hasn't learned all the material on the nine-hour exam, she'll face it for a fourth time today.
"It's scary, every time, right before the test," said the Hueneme High School junior, part of the first wave of students who must pass to receive diplomas. "There's so much pressure. Constantly I'm thinking, 'What if I don't pass and I don't graduate?' "
Villa is among more than 100,000 teenagers who have failed the California High School Exit Exam at least twice, putting them at the center of a statewide movement to pressure Sacramento to drop or delay the requirement. About half of current high school juniors have passed the exam, so far.
Students, many from schools in poor neighborhoods, say they haven't been taught the material in their classes. They say they're bad test-takers, no matter how hard they try. They say the weight of the exam is affecting their performances.
And as state education officials continue to push for tougher academic standards, many of those young people and their parents are pushing back.
About 200 students, parents and teachers rallied last week outside the Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters to protest the exit exam, waving signs and chanting, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, exit exams have got to go."
Similar demonstrations are being organized from San Jose to San Diego. Student delegations plan to meet with state Board of Education members.
"When students have met every other requirement of graduation, to deny diplomas based on one test is unfair and unsound," said Abdi Soltani, executive director of Californians for Justice, a group that works to improve education in poor and minority communities and is leading a fight against the tests.
California education officials say they haven't made up their minds about whether to leave the Class of 2004 on the hook. A statewide study, due out in May, is looking at whether students have had adequate opportunity to learn the math and language arts concepts they need to pass the exam. Officials also want to see scores from this spring's round of testing.
Eighteen other states require similar exams, and recent national studies show that such diploma-linked testing has caused a spike in high school dropouts and a dip in graduation rates. Activists fear similar repercussions in California.
A State Board of Education member, Suzanne Tacheny, said a decision about whether to postpone enforcement of the exam will require "Solomon-like wisdom."
"Which trade-off is more important? If you delay the test until every kid passes, it's meaningless," she said. "What's the point at which you say it's been fair?"
Reed Hastings, president of the state school board, also warned that dropping the test wouldn't really help struggling students in the long run. The exam's contents, he and others say, are not unreasonably difficult; they cover language arts concepts through the 10th grade and math through basic algebra, often a ninth-grade class.
"The key is: Do the students have the skills they need in the economy of the future?" Hastings said. "A student who can't pass the exit exam is definitely at risk for not having those skills. The problem is not the exit exam. The problem is getting attention focused on those students and, in some cases, getting those students motivated to do the learning that's necessary."
The exit exam, a chief component of Gov. Gray Davis' school reforms, includes two sections, each with 80 multiple-choice questions, plus two essays spread over three days.
Questions cover English standards, such as reading comprehension, word analysis, writing structure and grammar. In math, concepts include fractions, probability, linear equations and basic geometry.
The test is offered as many as three times a year and students retake only the portion they have failed.
Of the estimated 459,588 students enrolled in the Class of 2004, about 48% have passed both sections of the exam, according to the most recent figures available.
As many as 217,300 of them, now high school juniors, have either failed or not yet taken the math section of the exam. About 103,300 have taken and failed it twice.
In language arts, more than 140,000 have either failed or not taken it, and about 48,800 have failed twice, according to data from the California Department of Education.
Olivia Gomez, a junior with a 3.5 grade point average at Washington Preparatory High School in South Central Los Angeles, said teachers have not adequately prepared students, particularly in math, which is why she failed that section three times.
"There are not enough books. It's not like we are dumb; we just don't get the resources we need," Gomez said angrily, while protesting in Los Angeles last week. "I tried; I tried hard to pass. I can study and study, but on the day of the test, I freak out. I just can't do it. But they shouldn't judge us on how we take tests."
Critics of the test say its fairness is a key question.
They note that pass rates among white and Asian youngsters on the 2002 test were nearly double those of Latinos and African Americans. Among students from low-income homes, only 22% passed the exam's math section last spring, while about 40% of students considered not economically disadvantaged passed.
Roni Parker, who oversees academic counseling at Los Angeles High School, which has a high minority population, said math and English courses were added this spring geared to students who have failed the exam, as well as freshman and sophomores who have not yet taken it.
Schools across the state are taking similar approaches.
At Santa Paula High School in Ventura County, students are enrolled in an "exit exam institute," a daily class that takes the place of an elective course.
"For students who have already had several tries, we need to get serious," said Principal Tony Gaitan. "The reality is, we want to make sure our kids have choices when they graduate, so let's get them ready."
Still, many students worry that they won't catch up.
Cristina Zavala, 17, a student in Oxnard, said she has thought about dropping out rather than enduring the humiliation and blows to her self-esteem that the graduation test is causing.
"I try hard to get my grades and work toward a diploma, and all that hard work is going to be for nothing," she said. "It makes me want to leave."
There is no evidence so far that California's exit exam has caused students to drop out.
But in other states, schools have experienced an increase in dropout rates and in the numbers of students taking general equivalency exams -- an alternative way to end a high school education without a diploma -- according to a recent study. Researchers from Arizona State University looked at 16 states, including Florida, New York and Texas, and found that dropout rates worsened in 62% of the states after the test was required. The study was funded by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, which has opposed such tests.
"It's simple: Students will not set themselves up for repeated failures," said Audrey Amrein, the study's lead author.
In Massachusetts, lawyers filed a lawsuit recently on behalf of students who failed the newly instituted graduation exam, claiming some test material had never been taught.
Hastings, the California school board president, said that some states have been successful with graduation exams, and are showing a steady increase in pass rates and in the amount of learning as a result. He said he thinks that California wrote a fair test and that the exam is needed to make a high school diploma worth more.
California Teachers Assn. President Wayne Johnson disagrees. Completing four years of classes for a high school diploma means a lot these days because standards for course work have been raised.
"This very rigid test," the union leader said, has "excluded some kids from getting a high school diploma who I think deserve it."
With support from the teachers association, Assemblywoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) introduced a bill last month that would remove the graduation requirement. High-stakes exit exams may have been reasonable when the state was increasing funding for schools, but not during a period of budget cuts, Hancock said.
Meanwhile in Oxnard, Villa prepares to tackle the math portion of the exam for the fourth time with what she considers to be a handicap. She won't take Algebra I until next year, but will face much of that material on the state test. She gets after-school help, but the stress has caused her grades to slip, she said.
"I want to do better," said Villa, who hopes to go to college to study photography. "But when I see that I'm not passing the exit exam, I think, 'Oh, my God, I'm not going to make it.' "
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
The following are questions taken from the California High School Exit Exam, which high school students will have to pass to graduate, beginning in 2004.
1) Stephanie is reading a 456-page book. During the past seven days she has read 168 pages. If she continues reading at the same rate, how many more days will it take her to complete the book?
A. 12; B. 14; C. 19; D. 24
2) A bag contained four green balls, three red balls, and two purple balls. Jason removed one purple ball from the bag and did not put the ball back in the bag. He then randomly removed another ball from the bag. What is the probability that the second ball Jason removed was purple?
A. 1/36; B. 1/9; C. 1/8; D. 2/9
3) The musician played Wendy's favorite waltz for her husband
A. I; B. he; C. she; D. her
4) Read this sentence from the first article: "A supplement is like nutritional insurance."
What does the author mean by comparing the use of supplements to insurance?
A. Like nutritional supplements, insurance is necessary in order to maintain good health.
B. Having insurance and using supplements will keep bad health away.
C. Both insurance and vitamins are important in curing health problems.
D. Like insurance, the nutritional value of supplements will be available when you need it.
Answers: 1) A; 2) C; 3) D; 4) D
Source: California Department of Education, Office of Standards and Assessment
Los Angeles Times