Ninth graders in California who volunteered to take what many believed would be a practice run of the state’s new high school exit exam received a surprise last week when they learned, just two days before exam day, that the test would count.
Faced with opposition from Senate Republicans, supporters of a plan to make last week’s scheduled administration of the test a dry run fell three votes short of reaching the two-thirds majority needed to pass the emergency state legislation.
Ninth grade students who pass the reading, writing, and mathematics portions of the exam will not have to sit for the test again. Those who do not pass the test, which is required for graduation beginning in 2004, will have other opportunities to do so.
Vulnerable to Lawsuits
Democratic lawmakers contend that by failing to approve a delay of the first official administration of the exit exam, Republican senators sabotaged an effort to establish cutoff scores based on a complete sampling of students. The sample will be incomplete this year because the test is voluntary, and next year those students who have already passed the exam will be able to opt out of taking it again. The result, Democratic legislators say, is that the state could be more exposed to lawsuits challenging the graduation requirement.
“For whatever reason, [the Republicans] chose to potentially jeopardize our accountability system,” said Sen. Jack O’Connell, the Democratic lawmaker who sponsored the legislation, which was backed by Gov. Gray Davis, another Democrat. “There’s no question that we are more vulnerable today to a legal challenge as a result of the Senate Republicans’ unwillingness to help us protect the integrity of this test.”
But Republican Sen. Raymond N. Haynes said that all the Democrats’ talk of test validity was merely a cover-up for deeper fears that California students will not perform well on the exam.
“They’re afraid that more than half the kids will fail this test, and it will expose to the world how badly schoolkids are doing,” Mr. Haynes said. “Every other reason for making the test voluntary was not grounded in fact.”
Over the past month, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin has kept superintendents apprised of the progress of the proposal to change the implementation schedule of the exit exam. While the correspondence made it clear that the bill still needed to be approved by the legislature and signed by the governor to become law, education department spokesman Doug Stone acknowledged that there was likely some confusion in the days leading up to the test.
“There was a sense within the education community that it wasn’t a big deal to have this passed,” Mr. Stone said. “I think there were some mixed messages out there. It ended up placing ninth graders and their parents and teachers in an awkward situation.”
Still, Mr. Stone added, the controversy over the implementation date is not a reflection of the quality of the test itself. “We still believe that it is a high-quality product that meets the needs of the state,” he said.
Ninth graders who took the test this month likely will receive some results early this summer, but will not learn whether they passed or failed the test until late summer or early fall. State education officials said they were still determining whether to set cutoff scores for the exam based on the performance of 9th graders who took the test this year, those who participated in a field test last year, or a combination of the two.
A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as California’s ‘Practice’ Test is for Real