Ease Up on Exit Exams

Most of Santa Ana's students will probably flunk the high school exit exam this spring. Last year, less than a fourth passed the math test. Forty percent passed in English, a coup considering that four out of five test-takers weren't fluent in the language.

The state teachers union, along with many students and parents, protests that the test demands too much and that kids should get a diploma if they fulfill their class requirements. The test is unfair to poor and minority students and too stressful, they claim. But dumbing down the high school exit exam to appease protesters would be just plain dumb. How quickly these people have forgotten that years of social promotion led to meaningless diplomas that some students could barely read.

A Times story on the backlash resounded with student complaints that the system had failed to teach them. None shouldered responsibility with the words, "I didn't try hard enough to learn." Which is not to say there aren't inequities. Poor and minority students often face the test after years with noncredentialed teachers and inadequate textbooks. A parent survey in February found that 69% of South Gate High students did not have texts in all their classes.

Al Mijares, superintendent of the Santa Ana Unified School District, isn't among those trying to shirk the exit exam. Unlike the California Teachers Assn., he believes his students can and must do the extra work to learn the material, even though 85% of them are poor and three-fourths of their parents lack a high school diploma. So Mijares made his ninth-graders get out of bed an hour earlier for extra coaching. He proposed an optional, remedial fifth year of high school, to be held after regular class hours. But after a year and a half, the district canceled the daily coaching in January because of the budget crisis, which also is sinking dreams of a remedial year.

The state wisely began its educational reforms in the elementary schools, where students show dramatic improvements. The current crop of high school students is too old to have benefited from those reforms and too young to avoid the exit exam. Assemblywoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) is engaging in overkill with AB 356, which would dump the requirement. Until the state can finance the extra coaching Mijares proposes, it should ease into the exam, not by dumbing it down but by lowering the passing score and then raising it year by year as educational reforms catch up to the graduating class.

Judging from the sample questions the state has released, the test also could use some common-sense reform. Is a student really unqualified for a diploma if he says, "That's not good for you and I" instead of "for you and me"? Better to pare away a few nitpicky grammar questions, in favor of testing the skills needed to get a decent job, such as real-world math and an ability to communicate clearly. Keep the questions meaningful for them and us.

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