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Students on Protest Tour Say High School Exit Test Is Unfair

Times Staff Writer

The yellow bus pulled up to Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles on Saturday, and 15-year-old Samantha Knox jumped out into the drizzly weather, carrying an armful of protest signs with phrases such as “Don’t Throw Away My Future.”

Wearing a red poncho, Knox, a student from Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, began dancing and launched into a chant: “Hey, hey, ho, ho! Denying diplomas has got to go!”

Saturday’s rally at Crenshaw High was part of a statewide bus tour protesting the high school exit exam, a test all public high school students beginning with the class of 2004 must pass before they can graduate. The tour was organized by Californians for Justice, a group leading the fight against the test. The trek began Friday in San Diego, making stops over two days in Long Beach, Riverside, Los Angeles and Lynwood.

“We have the support of all of our allies to get the message across to the state board that this exit exam is not helping us; it’s hurting us,” said Knox, who traveled on the bus tour to four cities. “This test may prevent me from going to college.”

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The protests come on the heels of an announcement last week by Reed Hastings, president of the State Board of Education, that use of the test should be postponed because of high failure rates among students who have taken it so far.

Test supporters have warned that dropping the requirement will not help struggling students in the long run because the exam’s content is not unreasonably difficult and students should know such concepts before they graduate. But critics say the test is unfair because many California students are not taught the material included in it.

“They’re putting us in a position to compete with students who have resources that we don’t,” said Ashley Williams, 17, of Crenshaw High, who added that she has gone weeks without textbooks in some classes and that at least four of her teachers have only emergency credentials.

After the Crenshaw demonstration, which drew a small group of protesters, students headed to St. Philip’s Episcopal Church east of USC. They joined about 50 other students and teachers from Dorsey, Washington Prep and Los Angeles high schools, as well as Gompers Middle School, all members of the Coalition for Educational Justice, a local grass-roots organization that has been fighting the exam.

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In front of the church, the sun came out, the crowd was larger and the mood was livelier. The coalition members, who led a recent campaign to persuade the Los Angeles Unified School District board to support a moratorium on use of the exam, cheered and shook soda cans filled with dried garbanzo beans. The board voted unanimously last month to support the moratorium.

Manuel Saravia, 16, a student in the class of 2004 at Dorsey High School, said he has failed the exam and fears he may never be able to pass it. He criticized the state for failing to fix problems at his school such as overcrowding, violence and unqualified teachers, which make it difficult to learn.

“Our classes are so overcrowded. Our toilets are always dirty and broken,” he said. “Being there doesn’t make me feel like learning. It makes me feel like leaving.”

Only about 60% of California students in the class of 2004 have passed the math portion of the exit exam, according to a state-mandated report by the Human Research Organization in Virginia that was released Thursday. Even after more attempts to pass, about 20% of that class might still be denied diplomas, the report said.

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Later Saturday, the bus traveled to Lynwood to gather postcards protesting the exam to send to Hastings. This week, it will make stops in Fresno, San Jose, Oakland, San Francisco, Stockton and Sacramento. Along the way the bus will pick up some students, although most will not participate in the entire tour, which runs through Thursday, because organizers say they don’t want students to skip classes.

Abdi Soltani, executive director of Californians for Justice who plans to ride along all seven days, said: “Our message is that the state must guarantee a quality education, instead of punishing students for the failure of the state. Each event isn’t necessarily a big, big thing. But the whole tour tells the stories of inadequate conditions in California schools.”


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