A test we can't afford to fail

California is broke, but kids still need to know how to read and do basic algebra. It's an insult to the aspirations of California students that legislators moved to kill the high school exit exam :a=latimes_1min&feed;:c=topstories&feed;:i=47535918&nopaging;=1 as a graduation requirement.

Excusing it as a budget move, all six Democratic legislators on the budget conference committee voted quickly, with little debate and no real public airing. The state would still give the exam in 10th grade -- it has to, because that's the test it reports to the federal government under the No Child Left Behind Act -- but it would do away with further testing in later years for students who flunk the first time.

The state can't afford the remedial lessons to help students pass, the legislators said. On the contrary, the state cannot afford to have students enter the work world without eighth-grade math and 10th-grade reading skills, which is what the exam tests. Employers, who can be choosier than ever in an economy like this, aren't going to lower their job requirements just because the state dropped the most fundamental expectations for its students.

This isn't really about money. The state would save perhaps $8 million, a relative pittance, by eliminating the graduation requirement. Several legislators have been itching for years to get rid of the exam, which is unpopular with teachers unions and which, truth be told, disproportionately keeps black and Latino students from receiving diplomas. But those young people are also disproportionately harmed when they lack the academic skills that would qualify them for well-paid jobs. The exit exam is one initiative aimed at closing that gap; it also is the one school reform that gives students an incentive to work toward mastering basic schoolwork, and prods their parents to pay more attention to what's happening at their schools. It is shameful that minority students continue to receive an education inadequate to their needs, but it's wrong to blame the test.

If there's anything to criticize about the exit exam, it's that the expectations for our graduates remain so low. They pass by getting barely more than half the answers right, a flunk in most testing situations.

For too many years, elementary and middle schools have promoted students without teaching them the required material. High schools responded by giving diplomas as rewards for students who warmed a classroom seat for four years. Fortunately, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vowed to veto any attempt to return to those days. We urge him -- and the legislators who understand that a basic education isn't something we reserve solely for flush economies -- to hold firm.

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