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Persistence pays on high school exit exam

Yes, we can be glad that more students have that piece of paper, but it is hard to celebrate a fifth year of test prep. It is hard to believe that this added year has increased student appreciation of Edna St. Vincent Millay poetry, one hurdle on the reading comprehension test. One can only wonder how this fifth year of school has affected the students, other than the acquisition of the diploma, not to mention the cost-benefit to society.

By Adrian G. Uribarri

At first they didn't succeed, so they tried, tried again.

Of about 40,000 students who failed the mandatory California High School Exit Examination last year, about 45% have enrolled for a fifth year of high school or an adult education program, according to new figures from the California Department of Education. About 4,800 passed after taking the test once more.

The data also show that this year's class of graduating seniors has a pass rate of 91.2%, more than 2 percentage points higher than the class of 2006 at this point last year. Black students improved by 4.5 percentage points, more than any other subgroup. Overall improvements were similar within the Los Angeles Unified School District.

"We're clearly on track and moving in the right direction," said Jack O'Connell, state superintendent of public instruction, at a news conference at Grant High School in Van Nuys. "For the first time, we're seeing a narrowing of the achievement gap."

But O'Connell expressed concern over one group of students whose pass rate has remained almost flat: English-language learners. That group improved by only 1.4 percentage points over last year ΓΆ€” more progress than white and Asian students made ΓΆ€” but their pass rate is still the lowest among all groups except special-education students.

"This is unacceptable to me," O'Connell said, pointing to stunted bars on a graph showing yearlong gains. "It's way too low."

This year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed budget includes more than $77 million for exam-related instruction and materials, including $5 million exclusively for students at risk of failing the test.

Among programs for at-risk students is Bridge to College, a partnership between Los Angeles Valley College and Los Angeles Unified, which offers courses for students planning to retake the exam.

Karina Reyes, a 19-year-old student in the Bridge to College Program, has failed the test four times and plans to take it again in May. It took three tries to pass the math portion, she said, but almost a year after she was supposed to graduate, she still struggles with the essay section.

"I need more practice on the writing," said Reyes, who moved from Mexico to the United States before kindergarten. She asked her teachers for help, "but the way they explained it to me was hard for me to understand."

The former student at Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley said at least one of her friends didn't take the exam again.

More than half who don't pass by the end of their senior year don't try again, according to the Education Department, so they don't receive high school diplomas even if they pass all their classes.

From 10th to 12th grades, students have six chances to pass the exam, designed to ensure that graduating high school seniors have at least eighth-grade skills in math and ninth- or 10th-grade skills in English. Physically, mentally or emotionally disabled students in the class of 2006 were exempted.

In August, a state appeals court upheld the test after students and parents filed a lawsuit arguing that it was skewed against poor, minority and limited-English-speaking students. That decision and a later reaffirmation from a three-judge panel were victories for O'Connell, who has strongly pressed for the exam.

The test became a graduation requirement starting with the class of 2006, which first took it in February 2004 as sophomores. It is also used as a performance measure for state and federal education programs, including No Child Left Behind.


— Adrian G. Uribarri
Los Angeles Times


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