Assessment

Calif. to Study Whether Graduation Test Should Be Delayed

By Bess Keller — October 03, 2001 4 min read
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Thousands of California 10th graders just learned whether they passed the state’s new high school exit exam. What they don’t know—and can’t know for another 18 months—is if they needed to.

Gov. Gray Davis is expected to sign a bill this month that will give the state board of education the authority to postpone the date the test will count toward graduation. State education officials say they sought the greater leeway to make sure that the test is fair and can withstand a court challenge.

“We’re fine-tuning the design” of the original 1999 legislation, which required the class of 2004 to pass the exam, said Kerry Mazzoni, the Democratic governor’s secretary of education. “We support the exit exam, and want to make sure it’s valid and defensible.”

The potential postponement comes after more than half the nearly 400,000 9th graders who took the test last year flunked it, despite low cutoff scores. Yet Ms. Mazzoni said the results did not spark the proposed change. Rather, legislators and other officials were worried that high school classrooms around California might not have caught up with the state’s academic standards, leaving students without the chance to study what was on the test.

Another concern with the system, officials said, was allowing 9th graders to take the test on a voluntary basis. That policy ensured that less than a complete 10th grade class would sit for the exam because 9th graders who opted to take the exam a year early and passed would not have to take it in 10th grade. That might call into question the validity of the cutoff scores, according to the officials.

Study Required

The legislation calls for an independent study of whether students are being taught the test material, after which the state board can decide by Aug. 1, 2003, whether to postpone the consequences of the test for the class of 2004. The bill would allow a delay only on the grounds that students had not gotten the right material or because the test’s development was technically flawed.

“The tracking so far says we’re getting a lot better” at matching curriculum to the standards, said John B. Mockler, the executive director of the 10-member state board of education, which is appointed by the governor. “If it gets better, we’re fine.”

If not, the board can choose a one- time delay.

“We’d prefer a one- or two-year delay, to [a delay of] 10 years,” said Robert J. Spurlock, an assistant secretary of education.

The bill would also end the option of taking the test in 9th grade, although students would still have several chances to pass the exam before their graduation date. About 80 percent of last year’s 9th graders took the English and mathematics exam, which includes essays.

Sen. Raymond N. Haynes was one of several Republicans to oppose a postponement, saying that it was high time the state got on with its accountability program.

“I believe the arguments against the exit exam are a smoke screen to hide the fact that adults aren’t doing their job in the classroom,” he said. He added that a postponement of the consequences would undermine the exam’s credibility among students.

Meanwhile, many of this year’s 10th graders, while they’ve received their results, are unaware that passing the test might not be needed for their graduation from high school. W. Terry Chapman, the principal of Florin High School in the 48,000-student Elk Grove district near Sacramento, said the school’s staff was proceeding under the assumption that the test will count for the class of 2004 because that seems safest for the students.

“There have been a lot of twists and turns with the high school exam,” Mr. Chapman said. “It’s made it more difficult to plan and emphasize the importance of the test to students and their parents.”

Teacher Quality

Before adjourning Sept. 15, the legislature also sent to the governor a bill meant to hold districts accountable for the qualifications of their teachers. The legislation, offered by Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat, would require the state department of education to devise a “teacher-qualification index” by July 1 of next year.

The index would be applied to each school, with the results to be published on the Internet. The index would take into account such factors as the proportion of teachers who lack a full teaching credential, the variation in that proportion from the district average, and the numbers of veteran and new teachers.

The plan is a response to the finding that California schools serving disadvantaged children are far more likely to employ underqualified teachers than schools in better-off areas. The scoring system would apparently be the first such public measure in the nation, although Texas law requires parents to be notified if their own child’s teacher lacks a full credential.

“Shedding light on schools with a low number of fully qualified teachers will help to concentrate district and state resources on bringing fully prepared teachers to where they are needed most,” Mr. Steinberg said. “It is not meant to stigmatize schools.”

The bill originally included improvement goals for districts but those were later dropped.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Davis said he had not yet decided whether to sign the bill.

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