Momentum is growing to provide alternatives to California’s controversial high school exit exam, which critics say contributes to low graduation rates and discriminates against minority students.
The test’s opponents in the Legislature sought support Wednesday for two new bills that would rein in the graduation policy, which is a requirement for next year’s senior class. Both measures passed committee hearings.
Grass-roots groups, meanwhile, have been mobilizing against the test by lobbying legislators, holding rallies and recruiting new members on high school campuses.
“I’m very concerned that students will be discouraged and [question] why they should go forward if their futures rest on one exam,” Assemblywoman Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) said before the vote, which fell largely along party lines. “I don’t understand why people think that giving an exam magically improves education.”
But the test, which students begin taking in their sophomore year and have six chances to pass, is praised by others who say it is an important measure of academic success. They note that research is inconclusive on whether the exam contributes to low graduation rates.
Bass’ measure would offer students alternative methods to prove their knowledge of English and math through assessments and projects tied to the state’s academic standards.
The other bill, in the state Senate, would delay the exit exam requirement until schools demonstrate that they offer access to fully credentialed teachers, adequate books and counselors -- educational deficiencies that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has publicly acknowledged.
Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) said at the education committee hearing that students who fail the exit exam are often victims of classroom deficiencies. The exit exam, she said, “is going to punish the students who were born poor” and attend underachieving schools.
Republicans voiced dissent, saying that an unfettered exit test can motivate learning, promote better standards and ensure that all graduates meet a statewide standard.
Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge), a physician, noted that after medical school he had to take board tests ensuring competency. The state’s high school exit exam represents a similar hurdle, Richman said.
If it proceeds with the planned exit exam, California would join 19 other states that require students to pass high school exit exams.
The 6 1/2 -hour exam, which includes multiple choice questions and an English essay, is pegged to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade standards in math, including Algebra I, and to skills through 10th grade in English.
Even with the modest expectations, however, state officials delayed enforcement of the exam from the Class of 2004 to the Class of 2006 amid concerns about low passage rates and a desire to give students more time to master the material.
So far, 83% of next year’s seniors have passed the English portion of the test and 82% have passed math.
As the deadline for the graduation requirement approaches, critics are once again highlighting the need for better preparation and pointing to the specter of more dropouts, particularly among African Americans, Latinos and other groups with the highest failure rates.
They note that 78,000 of next year’s seniors must still pass the English section, and 59,000 must pass math. Some of the same students could be included in both groups.
“I’ve already seen it demoralizing the ones who haven’t passed,” said Elizabeth Minster, a teacher at Los Angeles High School and a leader of Coalition for Educational Justice, a grass-roots Los Angeles group.
Researchers have mixed opinions about whether exit exams increase dropout rates.
An independent analysis of California’s exam found that dropout rates decreased after it was originally introduced for the Class of 2004. But researcher Lauress L. Wise cautioned that the exit exam could be one of many contributing factors.
“What I would conjecture, based on interviews with school principals, is that there is a lot more attention being paid to students at the margins,” said Wise, president of the nonprofit research think tank Human Resources Research Organization in suburban Washington.
“It may be that this increased attention ... is keeping [them] in school longer,” Wise added.
Others have found that repeating a grade in middle school or high school is a better predictor of whether a student will drop out because of the stigma associated with being held back.
“The issue is not settled.... However, I believe the evidence leans toward more dropouts,” said Keith Gayler, an exit exam consultant with the Center on Education Policy in Washington.
Despite the inconclusive research, many in education firmly believe that California’s test is going to drive students out of school.
Grass-roots groups such as Californians for Justice and the Campaign for Quality Education are mounting public awareness campaigns against the test.
About 200 protesters rallied earlier this month at Leimert Park in Los Angeles. State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who sponsored the new exit exam bill in the Senate, said at the rally that it was time for change.
“We should have the highest expectations for our students,” Romero said. “But we need teachers. We need counselors.... and we cannot be denied an education.”
Helfand reported from Los Angeles, Bailey reported from Sacramento.