California Offers Long-Term Help on Exit Exams

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As soon as they apply for it, California school districts will be eligible to receive a share of more than $70 million for supplemental instruction and counseling services targeting students who have reached the end of senior year without passing the state’s high school exit exam, under legislation signed this month by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The measure allowing students to receive up to two years of extra help beyond the 12th grade year brings to an end a lawsuit against the state, Valenzuela v. O’Connell, filed by students who had repeatedly failed the test, but had met other graduation requirements. ("California Seniors Sue Over High School Exam," Feb. 15, 2006.)

In addition, the Republican governor included more than $188 million in the current fiscal year’s budget for summer and after-school programs to help students prepare for the mandated test.

The Oct. 12 signing of the bill came amid a flurry of action by the governor on recently passed legislation, including his veto of a bill that would have changed the process for returning control of the Oakland Unified School District to the local school board. The 41,000-student district has been under state control since 2003. Mr. Schwarzenegger also vetoed a measure that would have provided in-state college-tuition rates to illegal immigrants living in California, saying that it would place “additional strain” on the state’s general fund.

See Also
See other stories on education issues in California. See data on California's public school system.

In the Valenzuela case, the plaintiffs had argued that students in disadvantaged communities—particularly English-language learners—do not have an equal opportunity to learn the material covered on the test. But in the summer of 2006, a state appeals court sided with state officials and overturned a trial-court ruling that would have removed the testing requirement for students in that year’s senior class.

Arturo J. Gonzalez, the San Francisco lawyer who represented lead plaintiff Liliana Valenzuela, said he hopes the subsequent settlement in the case, which was reached in July, helps more students pass the test. ("Tentative Agreement Reached in Suit Over Calif. Exit Exam," Aug. 1, 2007.)

But he said he continues to be concerned about “educational inequities” in the public school system. About 34,000 students from the class of 2006, or 7.7 percent, have not passed or taken the exam. For the class of 2007, that number is close to 37,000 students, or 8.6 percent.

Adjusting Deadlines

California’s efforts to give more remedial help and other opportunities to students taking the California High School Exit Examination highlight the struggles that many states are having as they decide whether to hold firm to exit-exam mandates or delay the requirements.

Currently, 23 states have such mandates, according to the Education Commission of the States, and others are moving in that direction. But in Maryland later this month, the state school board will decide whether to go ahead with a planned requirement that students in the class of 2009 pass an exit exam to receive a diploma. Maryland’s exam requirement already has been pushed back two years.

And in Washington state, the legislature earlier this year delayed until 2013 the requirement that students pass the 10th grade math section of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning exam to graduate.

Washington students still are required to pass the reading and writing portions of the state test. Those who pass the math section can receive a Certificate of Academic Achievement. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson released data in August showing that more than 80 percent of students scheduled to graduate in 2008 already have passed the test’s reading and writing sections.

At issue in most states wrestling with exit-exam decisions is the performance of economically disadvantaged students, minority students, and students with disabilities. For example, of the 36,930 students from this year’s graduating class in California who have not yet passed the state exam, more than 18,000 are English-language learners and more than 24,000 are from low-income homes.

That’s one reason why it’s wise for states to give students more than one bar to reach in order to earn a diploma, said Kathy Christie, a vice president at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

“High stakes should never hinge on a single test result,” she said. She added that she was “happy to see” California offering extra help to students who had not yet passed the exam.

She also said that for states to rethink graduation and other academic hurdles is part of an ongoing process.

“It’s not unusual to adjust cut scores [for passing state tests] and adjust timelines,” Ms. Christie said. “Some states are not as realistic as they should be when they set those cut points.”

Vol. 27, Issue 09, Page 23

Published in Print: October 24, 2007, as California Offers Long-Term Help on Exit Exams
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