Panel Recommends Delaying Exit Exam for Disabled Students
Ohanian Comment: I taught many students like Meghan. I fought very hard for materials appropriate to their reading abilities and interests. It is what drives me so crazy about NCLB and other Standardisto plans that insist all students should be "achieving at the same high level."
Therese Musgrave brushed tears from her cheeks as she watched her daughter speak.
"I don't mind taking a test for high school, but just make it at my level," Meghan Musgrave said.
The freckled 14-year-old spoke Wednesday to a panel of statewide educators who will advise the Legislature next month on whether to keep the California High School Exit Exam as a graduation requirement for students with disabilities.
"I read at a third-grade level. In eighth grade they tried to put me in fourth-grade reading, and I couldn't do it," said Musgrave, a freshman at Antioch High School who studies vigilantly and has gone through years of tutoring.
"You guys are basically telling me I'll have to take a test that is like a foreign language to me."
For now, the exit exam remains a graduation requirement for all students in California public schools in the class of 2006 and beyond.
In a draft report, the advisory panel recommends delaying the requirement for two years for students with disabilities. During that time, they urge further research to come up with other ways these students can prove what they've learned.
Blindness, paralysis, dyslexia and attention deficit are just some of the disabilities that can land a student in special education. The vast number and diversity of disabilities makes a standardized test like the exit exam a conundrum for policy-makers and a frustration for parents and students.
"A one-size test does not fit all," said Rebecca Serafin, whose learning-disabled daughter is a high school junior in Morgan Hill.
"My hope is this board will approve a special test for special ed students that is written to their level."
Students with disabilities are entitled to take the exam with variations that correspond with their "individualized education programs," documents that guide instruction in special education. The test comes in Braille, large print and audio versions for students with vision problems. Students who can't hold a pencil can dictate their answers to a scribe. Students who have a hard time reading can have a teacher read the test aloud. Calculators are permitted for some students.
But solutions can be difficult to come by for students like Musgrave, whose disabilities may make it impossible to learn algebra, read at a high school level or master other skills that are tested on the exit exam.
Among students who took the test last year as 10th-graders, about 75 percent passed the English portion and a similar portion passed the math. But among special education students, the pass rate was far lower: about 30 percent passed English and about the same number passed math.
Students who didn't pass the first time have five more chances to take the test. But an independent evaluation of the exam says there's been "no significant improvement in passing rates for students receiving special education services."
The advisory panel discussed the possibility of granting students with disabilities who don't pass the exam an alternate diploma, such as a certificate showing the student had completed required coursework. But parents opposed that idea.
"I am completely outraged," said Therese Musgrave.
"Anything less than a high school diploma for these kids is an extreme insult."
The panel also discussed whether, instead of an exam, students with disabilities should be able to submit other kinds of proof of their learning. The draft report recommends further exploration of this option during the two-year delay.
Panelists disagreed on whether postponing the requirement was a good idea. Some felt there should be no delay, some felt a longer delay was needed and some said two years was appropriate.
Panel member David Smith, a professor of deaf education at California State University, Fresno, addressed the group through an interpreter who spoke as Smith signed:
"I agree with the two-year extension," he said. "Mostly because changes take time."
Even with more time to prepare students for the exam, some panelists said it still might not be feasible for everyone to pass.
For some students, "passing the California High School Exit Exam could be an unrealistic expectation," said Ellen Gervase, a member of the advisory panel and a teacher in the Pomona Unified School District.
Those students were the focus of much of Wednesday's discussion. Panel member and special education teacher Stacy Begin read a letter written by Brandon Madura, one of her students at El Camino High School in Oceanside:
"I have had to work harder and study longer, so I could keep my grades up," he wrote. "I have done this because I know how important my education will be to my future."
Madura wrote that he has tried several times to pass the exit exam, but failed because he has not learned much of the material it covers.
"I don't think I should have to take any test if I have not already taken the class," he wrote. "I feel like I am being punished for being in special ed."
Many students with disabilities see the exit exam as a roadblock to the future. What kinds of jobs, they wonder, will they be able to hold without a high school diploma?
Serafin's daughter, Amanda, enjoys drawing and dreams of becoming a computer animator. Musgrave, the Antioch student, wants to work some day as a massage therapist. If that doesn't work out, she said, she'd like to join the military.
All of those jobs require a high school diploma. If the exit exam requirement stays in place for all students, Serafin said her family is considering moving to another state so her daughter can earn a diploma.
Laurel Rosenhall can be reached at (916) 321-1083 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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