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Published in Print: September 1, 2006, as Raising the Stakes

Raising the Stakes

For a growing number of students, graduation hinges on one big test.

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Like more than 40,000 other students in California—about 10 percent of the class of 2006—Raul Navarro did not pass the state’s high school exit exam in time for graduation. But Raul, whose family moved from Mexico to the San Diego area three years ago, is determined to earn a diploma. “I really have to pass,” he says. “It’s very necessary for me to help my family.”

Growth Factor

That’s why Raul spent four mornings in late July reviewing test strategies with a Princeton Review tutor hired by San Diego City Schools to help students who have fallen just shy of passing the exam on earlier attempts. “What we have to instill in them is the confidence they can do this,” says Jake Schiff, Raul’s tutor.

The test, which became a graduation requirement for the first time this past spring, affected disproportionate numbers of Hispanics, African Americans, poor students, and students learning English. A legal battle ensued, but seniors who were counting on judicial intervention got bad news in late May: The state Supreme Court, staying a lower court decision, let the failing scores stand. Although an appeals court is reviewing the case, graduation day has come and gone.

Roughly half of the students who failed the exam had completed all other graduation requirements, according to estimates from the state department of education. For the others, the test became just one more hurdle to finishing high school.

“If a student has not passed,” says Hilary McLean, a spokeswoman for California superintendent Jack O’Connell, “that simply means that student’s education is not complete.” In addition to trying again in July, students could enroll in summer school, adult school, a fifth year of high school, or community college.

But no one knows how many of the seniors who failed the test will, like Raul, continue to work toward a diploma, and how many will simply give up. Districts are still collecting data, and the state department of education is developing a system to track students.

“The concern is, you’re going to have higher dropout rates,” says Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based nonprofit. “The hope is that kids will apply themselves more and academic rigor will increase. We think the judgment is out on both counts.”

One thing, however, seems clear: Exit exams are poised to become more widespread. In 2005, half of public school students lived in the 19 states with exit exams, according to the CEP. By 2012, it projects that proportion will jump to more than 70 percent, as 25 states make the tests a graduation requirement. Driving the trend are calls from business leaders and politicians for high school diplomas that guarantee at least basic reading and math skills.

As for Raul, he sounds confident. “I’m sure I will pass this test,” he says, “and my diploma is going to help me open new opportunities.”

Vol. 18, Issue 01, Page 10

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