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[Susan notes: Here we have a range of letters over the issue of requiring students to pass a high stakes test to receive a diploma.]

Published in Sacramento Bee

To the editor

Letter: Measures of education

Meaning of high school diploma

Re "Suit alleges exit exam unfair," Feb. 9: The high school exit exam is a comprehensive test, not a "crash course" test. For years, high school counselors have been talking to students, parents and the community about the exit exam. Students need to take each day of their education seriously by attending, completing their assignments and playing an active role in their education. The school system is not the enemy.

Special-needs children fall into a unique category, and they need to be reviewed in a case-by-case basis. In my experience (I'm a retired counselor), crucial issues are attendance, completed homework and seeing the school day as a "job," the "paycheck" being a high school diploma.

A high school diploma is not a "senior diploma," but a reflection of student achievement over a long period of time.

- Nancy Kessler-Spero, Elk Grove

Guaranteeing an education

California's rule that students must pass a High School Exit Exam to receive a diploma represents a foolish waste of human potential.

For six years, the state has attempted to channel every student into college-prep classes, eliminating vocational classes that prepare students for careers as mechanics, construction workers and technicians. Academic requirements have increased so that algebra - formerly studied only by the college-bound - is now required of all students.

A high school diploma is a minimum requirement for most entry-level jobs. Failure to earn a diploma is one of the strongest predictors of incarceration. Yet state bureaucrats are prepared to deny diplomas to tens of thousands of otherwise eligible students.

The state has not provided alternatives to the exit exam for students who know the material but can't pass a standardized test. And the state has not provided adequate resources to schools serving large number of students with the greatest needs.

With adequate and equitable resources and with multiple pathways to a diploma, California can guarantee students an education, not incarceration.

- George Sheridan, Sacramento

No pass, no diploma

No one who cannot pass the exit exam should be granted a diploma.

The public has the right to expect that all people who own a high school diploma are qualified. Learning institutions and employers count on its integrity to assure them that a certain level of education has been achieved.

Perhaps there could be a separate category; e.g. attended classes but did not pass test. Or perhaps exceptional students could take the test at any time and move on to higher institutions. The military regularly uses a GED test to grant high school diplomas.

Too much time and money is being spent on students who expect to be inoculated with education. The resources should be made available and those who want to partake can do so. No student should be given a free pass or passed due to age.

And language, first and foremost, should never be allowed as an excuse for not passing. The language of the United States is English and no concessions should be given.

- James Jordan, Sacramento

Focus on education

Re "What can schools do to boost exit exam success?" commentary, Feb. 10: Gary Hart is precisely on target when he says that the California High School Exit Exam is needed to "help focus everyone's attention." The exam, purely and simply, is an accountability tool. It ensures that students have neither shortchanged themselves nor been shortchanged by our schools.

The exam is not full of trick questions. It's a straightforward, minimal test. A student needs to answer only about half of the questions correctly to pass. The test is not timed; students take as long as they need. Disabled students take the test with accommodations or, in some cases, even with modifications of the test itself. All students who fail the test get multiple opportunities to retake it.

Most important, if a high school student fails the test, the student is put on the path to get remedial course work. Isn't that better than a "gift" diploma that the student cannot even read?

- Greg Geeting, Sacramento

No exit

Why is it good to deny access to higher education, possibly to higher quality employment, to California's young men and women on the basis of scores on multiple-choice tests?

Gary Hart says it "focuses attention on the problem." Russlynn Ali says in a recent article that it "forces educators to close the achievement gap."

There are other ways to focus political attention on closing the achievement gap that do no harm to young people. Promote legislation that requires standardized measurement of opportunity to learn in schools. Force the state to better fund education where opportunity scores are low. Hold legislators accountable. Then think about an exit exam.

- Terry Underwood, Roseville

Assessing student needs

The first thing that teachers learn about assessments is to use them to examine the shortcomings in their own teaching. If we are properly using the high school exit exam, we can also use it to assess the district and its policies. And what we would find is that the district is sorely lacking in support for failing students and lacks adequate resources to advise and guide students.

At the high school level, administrators are disinterested in offering remedial courses because of cost and because it makes the school's academics look unsound. Similarly, the middle schools promote students who have failed subjects, including English and math. I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention that the school where I teach has 2.5 counselors for 1,500 students.

How can we blame students for their failure when the institution so miserably fails in its mission? How can we fail these students when the ideology that created the exam assumed that the institution was healthy and working fine? Obviously it's not.

- Geoff Melchor, Sacramento

Teaching the three Rs

Re "Teacher quality tops chief's list," Feb. 8: What exactly do youngsters need to become productive individuals in the society? They should be able to read with ease and understanding. They should have the capacity to write legibly and coherently. They must have the skill of intelligent conversation and communication, both executed with confidence. Equally important is the need for basic mathematical calculations. In short, the three Rs of reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic. How else can the schools judge whether a student is really qualified to be released into the society with these skills without testing the student's abilities? These exams are a must, whatever the Academic Performance Index and the Adequate Yearly Progress indicate, period.

- Kamala Parthasarathy, Rocklin

Valuing civic culture

Re "The root of civic culture," editorial, Feb. 14: Bravo for elevating the concern over the potential loss of our civic culture. One of the unintended consequences of the federal No Child Left Behind law is that everything else in the curriculum, apart from reading and math, are devalued.

If you assess on reading and math, if you call schools "failing" or "struggling" or "low-performing" because of that assessment, if you allocate resources based on improving those assessment areas, you create an environment in which music, art, science and even the study of our fundamental democratic values are devalued.

There is an opportunity cost to everything in education. If you must master calculus, you may not have time to read the Declaration of Independence. The Bee eloquently identified one of the potentially greatest opportunity costs - a generation of young people who may ultimately not have an appreciation of our nation's core civic values.

As we have seen since the inception of this country, democracy and freedom are not for the timid. They are a tough, bruising, robust, vital way of life that require constant vigilance, not only on the battlefield, but also in the classroom.

- Larry Miles, Sacramento

Board Member, San Juan Unified School District

Left behind in teaching to test

In The Feb. 14 editorial, "The root of civic culture," The Bee said one semester of senior government does not do the job. It is so true, but The Bee failed to mention why so little civics is taught in school.

The No Child Left Behind statute places enormous pressure on teachers, which includes administrators who keep saying not to teach to the test. Secondly, the president proposed in his State of the Union to increase teachers' knowledge in math and science, but made no mention of social science.

The ill-conceived exit exam tests which fields? Math and English. As a result, civics gets left out in school districts, especially elementary schools.

Fifteen years ago, we had a year of senior government class, but since then we have made economics a graduation requirement, which means less, not more, promotion of democracy.

What's next? Perhaps Vice President Dick Cheney will inspire hunter safety course, which will probably have to be taught to seniors during civics!

- Jerry Gonsalves, Ione


Unequal schools, unequal education

Re "Suit alleges school exit exam unfair," Feb. 9: Russlynn Ali, director of the Education Trust West, seems to think that throwing out the consequences of the high school exit exam would be like "throwing out the thermometer because it tells you that you have a fever," and that instead, we should "fix the fever."

Unfortunately, leaving the consequences of the exit exam in place for the class of 2006 is punishing the child for having a fever! Who would ever consider doing such a thing?

Once all California schools are equitable, then California and the state superintendent can draw a line in the sand and say that all students must pass. The Morrison & Foerster lawfirm has looked at California schools, especially those in low socio-economic areas, and knows that this is far from the truth.

The exit exam should be a tool that measures how a school is doing in providing an equitable education, not a punishment that will limit a student's lifelong earning potential because of poor learning conditions and limited opportunities to learn.

- Silvia L. DeRuvo, Roseville

Don't scrap exit exam

Re "Who's failing the exit exam, the kid or the school?" Peter Schrag, Feb. 15: One of the achievements my learning-disabled brother is most proud of is having earned his high school diploma, something he never would have been able to do had he had to pass an exit exam. For this reason I was against the exam. Upon reflection and as a public school teacher, I've changed my mind.

The worst thing California could do would be to eliminate or dumb down the test. If a significant minority fail to pass the test, then hard questions must be asked. Perhaps the schools need to do a better job educating English-language learners. Perhaps governments at all levels need to better address the social and economic inequities many students face. Whatever the underlying causes, scrapping the test would only risk letting students, schools and governments off the hook and reward failure.

Students with disabilities like my brother who may lack the natural skills to pass the test but who complete all of their courses should be offered an alternative diploma that would recognize their hard work and contributions to their school.

- Steve Kenworthy, Carmichael

Teaching for the exit exam

The lawsuit says they think it is unfair, unwise and illegal. The students who cannot pass the exam after four or five tries have a problem. I think the problem is they are either incompetent, or they are not being taught what they need to know to pass the test.

If the teachers are teaching the proper subject matter, it should coincide with what is being tested. If not, then the lesson plans need to be amended.

If a student can "pass" their classes they should be able to pass a test on basic math and English skills. If not, they need to study more or the teacher is passing students who should not be passed and the exit exam is catching them.

This test is necessary to ensure that our children are getting a basic education. They are not being unfairly punished because they live in a poor area or because they are low-income or immigrant or whatever other "cop-out" you want to use. If they can't understand basic math and English then maybe they don't belong in that grade and should repeat it until they learn it. Don't let them "skate" by! Test them! Test the teachers!

- Roger Vartabedian, Sacramento

multiple authors

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