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Published in Print: December 13, 2000, as Calif. Board Votes To Pare Down New Graduation Test

Calif. Board Votes To Pare Down New Graduation Test

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Faced with the potential of high failure rates, the California board of education voted last week to shorten the state's new high school exit exam, in part by eliminating some of the more difficult algebra questions.

The decision, which is backed by Gov. Gray Davis and Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, goes against recommendations made by members of an advisory panel on the test, which aims to measure skills and knowledge that students are expected to acquire by 10th grade.

Board members also approved a plan to postpone the first official administration of the test from this spring to 2002. If approved by the legislature, the change would mean that this spring's test will effectively become a practice run for 9th graders, instead of a chance to clear the graduation hurdle. This year's freshmen are slated to be the first class required to pass the test in order to graduate.

"There's an issue of opportunity to learn that's at stake here," said Doug Stone, a spokesman for Ms. Eastin. "We want to make sure that standards are high, but also that students have an opportunity to meet those standards and be successful on this very demanding test."

State officials say that the board's decision to eliminate multiple-choice questions from both the language arts and mathematics portions of the test stemmed in part from complaints that the original, 200-question draft test took too long to complete. The 40-person advisory panel for the exit exam—a cross-section of teachers, administrators, and other community members appointed by Ms. Eastin in July 1999—recommended at a meeting last month that an extra day be added to the school year to administer the test.

At that time, the panel advised against reducing the number of algebra questions from 26 to 12—which is exactly what the board of education voted to do on Dec. 7.

The advisory panel had counseled against that type of reduction on the grounds that it would prevent the test from covering all of the topics that the panel identified as essential to algebra instruction, said James R. Brown, the co-chairman of the advisory committee and the superintendent of the 30,000-student Glendale Unified School District. In paring down the language arts section, by contrast, the board reduced the number of questions from 100 to 82, but ensured that all topics were still represented.

"The argument is that some algebra is better than none, and I certainly can't fault that," said Mr. Brown. But, he added, unless all of the major topical areas, or standards, are included, "it's not the core of the algebra course, Algebra 1, as we identified it."

Phil Spears, who heads the department's work on the high school exam, said state officials hope to add more algebra questions in the future, as standards-based instruction becomes more embedded in the state's schools. Students who took the exit exam as a field test this fall answered an average of only 44 percent of the mathematics questions correctly, the test's developer, the Palo Alto-based American Institutes for Research, reported earlier this month.

"We don't want to send the message that algebra in its entirety should go away," Mr. Spears said. "At this particular time, for this group of students, we feel this is the best decision."

Timing To Change

Under the 1999 law authorizing the high school exit exam, it was determined that students in the class of 2004 would have their first opportunity to voluntarily take the exam in the spring of their 9th grade year, which is this spring.

State officials had planned to use those test results to set minimum passing scores on the exam. The volunteers who passed the test would have been exempted from having to take the test again, under the original plan.

But state officials now say they must test the entire pool of students at once to establish a legally viable scoring system. With that in mind, the board agreed to postpone the exam's first official administration until spring of 2002. The requirement that the class of 2004 must pass the exam to graduate has not changed, however.

State officials will still encourage schools to give the exam to 9th graders this year, though, and plan to make public the results and the tests themselves.

The board's recommended changes require legislative approval. Assemblywoman Virginia Strom- Martin, a Democrat who chairs the legislature's education committee, said lawmakers will likely support them.

"We know that in our classrooms, our kids aren't fully prepared for this test yet," said Ms. Strom-Martin. "It's silly to set the kids up for failure."

Vol. 20, Issue 15, Page 27

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