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No Pass, No Diploma: No Ceremony Either?

Times Staff Writer

Educators across California are grappling with what to do with nearly 100,000 seniors who could be denied diplomas next spring after failing the state’s first-ever high school exit exam.

At issue is whether students should be allowed to participate in graduation ceremonies, and whether to offer an alternative certificate in place of a high school diploma -- and what currency such a certificate would have in the job market.

With the state declining to weigh in, districts have created a patchwork of graduation plans:

* In Banning, students who fail the exam but have completed all required coursework will walk with classmates at commencement and be given “certificates of completion.”

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* Riverside schools will award certificates but are sharply divided over whether students should be allowed to participate in graduation.

* Anaheim and Santa Ana students who don’t pass the state exam will receive no recognition -- to do so would be disingenuous, educators in those districts say.

“It’s a tough issue. Some people want to have a high standard, a very high bar for kids to jump over, [while others] want some flexibility for kids that have difficulties,” said Supt. Frank W. Passarella of the Beaumont Unified School District, where the school board recently formed a committee to study the issue. “It’s going to be a very difficult decision for the local school boards to deal with.”

At least half the states will have mandatory high school exit exams by 2009. California’s was approved in 1999 in an effort to standardize what it means to be a high school graduate. The class of 2006 is the first to face the mandate.

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A recent report by the Virginia-based Human Resources Research Organization found that a fifth of this year’s seniors, or nearly 100,000 students, have not yet passed the test, despite tutoring, special classes and other academic aid.

At least 5,000 of these students are in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is discussing what to do with students who pass their classes but fail the exam. Senior activities -- including the prom -- will be off-limits for those who don’t participate in an intervention program aimed at helping them pass the test, but decisions about graduation and alternative certificates aren’t expected to be made until December, said district spokeswoman Susan Cox.

The far smaller Tulare Joint Union High School District, in Central California, has already decided: It will hand out certificates of completion to seniors who don’t pass the test and allow them to participate in graduation, which has been renamed “commencement.”

“Marching is a rite of passage for high school kids. The ceremony is pretty important to young people and their families,” said Supt. Gerald Benton. “It’s pretty hard to tell them, ‘You can’t pass one test, you can’t go through the ceremony.’ [It] might cause a lot of kids to drop out.”

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Banning’s school board is taking an identical tack.

“The ceremony is just a recognition of you putting in those four years,” said Supt. Kathleen McNamara, in whose district more than one-fourth of the roughly 250 seniors have not yet passed the test. “The big prize is the diploma. You can’t go to college or university with a certificate of completion.”

The stakes are high for students who don’t earn a diploma. Dropouts earn an average annual salary of $18,734 -- about one-third less than high school graduates, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“When I got out of high school, 39 years ago, you didn’t need a high school diploma to get a good-paying job at the chemical company or the coal mines,” said Bob Wise, president of the nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “Today, that’s not an option.”

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Most educators acknowledge that alternative certificates will simply be a nice gesture that won’t pass muster in the job market.

But in San Bernardino, where more than one-third of 2,500 seniors have yet to pass the exam, Supt. Arturo Delgado has talked to local business leaders about putting stock in an alternate certificate when making hiring decisions.

“We’re a large urban school district, and the negative impacts of these types of requirements tend to hit us harder,” said Delgado, whose school board will discuss the issue in December. "[We have] a large percentage of students who don’t speak English being asked to pass an exam in English.”

The state has not weighed in on the issue.

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“It’s a local decision,” said state Supt. Jack O’Connell, who wrote the legislation that created the exit exam while a state senator. “My focus is on a goal of 100% of students receiving a high school diploma. I’m trying to keep the focus on preparing for the workforce and preparing for college.”

State Senate Majority Leader and exit-exam critic Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) said special ceremonies to supplant the traditional graduation won’t help students succeed in the workforce.

“Walking across a stage is a temporary feeling, but it does nothing to address and resolve a fundamental flaw in the inequity of this exam, and the impact it is going to have on possibly 100,000 students in California,” Romero said.

Some districts agree with Romero and plan to make no graduation day accommodation for students who fail the exam, focusing all their energy on helping them pass it.

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“We’re not going to pretend,” said Susan Brandt, a spokeswoman for Santa Ana’s schools, where at least one-third of more than 3,200 seniors have yet to pass the exam. “If lots of kids put a cap and gown on and pretend, they would be satisfied and their families would be satisfied. We’re not giving them that; we’re not going to dumb it down for you.”

All students, including English-language learners and special-education students, are given six opportunities to score at least 55% on an eighth-grade-level math test and 60% on a ninth- or 10th-grade-level English test. Students who have yet to pass are vexed that after four years of hard work, their families might not see them cross a graduation stage with their classmates.

“I’d be so sad,” said Emma Barba, a Riverside senior who is taking a special workshop to help pass the math portion.

The 17-year-old, who passed the English exam on her first try but has failed the math test three times, said she would be the first in her family to graduate high school. Two older brothers dropped out, and she hoped to be a role model for two younger brothers.

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“I need to pass,” said the B-and-C student, who hopes to attend a trade school or junior college. “That’s like your ticket for anything.”

Barba and 14 other students in the workshop most recently took the exam in September and await the results. If they failed, they will have two more opportunities to take the test before graduation.

“I have a bond with them and want to see them graduate,” said teacher Vanessa Martinez. She said some of her students excel in drawing or creative writing, areas not tested by the exam. “It’s just heartbreaking to base their high school diploma on one test,” she said. “Maybe math isn’t their strong point.”


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