A low passing score was not enough to help most of California’s 9th graders make the grade on the state’s first high school exit exam.
Results released this month show that fewer than 45 percent of the students who volunteered to take the test this past March were able to reach the minimum score of 60 percent in reading and 55 percent in mathematics. Even more troubling, state education officials said, about three out of four of the African-American and Hispanic students who took the test failed.
“The results are sobering,” state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin said in a statement. “The reality is that some of our schools are not adequately preparing all students with the coursework and material required to pass the [state test]. The data show that we have a great deal of work to do, especially with our low-performing schools.”
Beginning with the class of 2004, students will have to pass the exit exam to graduate from high school. In the future, the test will first be given to 10th graders. Those who flunk will have opportunities to retake the test.
Nearly 400,000 students, or 81 percent of the state’s 9th graders, volunteered to take the exam, a multiple-choice and essay assessment created to align with California’s standards. Those who passed will not have to retake it.
The state board of education overrode a commission’s recommendation and followed Ms. Eastin’s counsel to set passing scores at 60 percent for the English portion of the test and 55 percent for mathematics. She argued that due to the rigor of the exam, the passing rate should be set lower and gradually raised.About three-fourths of the students would have failed math if the higher cutoff had been used.
While the results were disappointing, state officials said they expected a slow start because more rigorous standards in the subjects are still being phased in. In math, for example, students were tested on their knowledge of algebra, geometry, and probability and statistics. But many districts and schools throughout California do not yet have textbooks aligned to those higher standards, and many teachers have not been trained to teach the new subject matter, according to Assemblywoman Virginia Strom-Martin, a Democrat.
“I don’t think that we’re really surprised with the results, because we knew from the outset some of the material on the exit exam has not yet been taught to some of our kids in some of our schools,” said Ms. Strom-Martin, who chairs the education committee in the Assembly, the legislature’s lower house. “What it does show us is we still have a lot of work to do.”
Changing the Rules?
But other lawmakers said state education officials were trying to gloss over the extent of the problems in California’s schools by lowering the bar for students.
“It is most disturbing to me that the only way we can get 40 percent of our kids to pass is to change a failing grade to a passing grade,” said Sen. Raymond N. Haynes, a Republican. “This to me is outrageous. The whole purpose for having an accountability system, for having testing, is to see whether or not the adults are doing their job. And the adults look bad, so they change the rules.”
A panel of teachers, administrators, parents, and community members originally proposed a passing score of 70 percent for both English and math.
Margaret DeArmond, a math resource teacher in the Kern County district in Bakersfield, Calif., sat on that panel. In hindsight, she said, the lower cutoff scores were more realistic. “A lot of our students haven’t had this rich mathematics instruction that we’re aiming for. There were some hefty test items on that test.”
A bill currently under consideration in the legislature calls for an independent study of the exam to ensure it is aligned appropriately with state academic standards and for extending the date by which students must pass the test to graduate.
A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2001 edition of Education Week as More Than Half of California 9th Graders Flunk Exit Exam