Exit ignorant

Posted: May 13, 2003 12:00 AM

State Board of Education member Suzanne Tacheny has heard students wail that the requirement to pass the state's high school exit exam could ruin their chances of getting into college. They are so wrong, she said.

If high school seniors can't pass this test, they aren't likely to get into college.

Folks, the exit exam is not a difficult test.

The math section, which tests proficiency in 10th-grade math, is multiple choice. When an answer isn't clear, a student can factor all four possibilities to select the right answer. If students can't find solutions with the answers in front of them -- and they need to get only 55 percent right -- they haven't learned how to think critically or solve problems. (I haven't taken a math course for 30 years, and I got 52 out of 60 answers right on the sample math test.) Of the 459,588 students who have taken the English-language arts half of the test, 81 percent passed, compared to 62 percent in math. Students who flunk a section are given seven more chances to pass.

As Ann Bancroft of the governor's Office on Education put it, "It's not failing the test that harms the students' chances of success past high school. It's not knowing the material on the test." Fortunately, the prospect of failing has pressured low-performing districts to provide more remedial programs and supplemental courses, according to a review by the Human Resources Research Organization of Virginia.

Voila, students are faring better. According to the Department of Education, 73 percent of students in the class of 2004 -- the first class required to pass the exit exam in order to graduate -- passed the English-language arts test by the end of the 10th-grade, two years ahead of deadline; the number was 79 percent for the class of 2005. The pass rate on math went from 53 percent of 10th-graders in the class of 2004 to 60 percent for the class of 2005.

Not that improvement matters to self-styled advocates for poor and minority students who have opposed the test because they are so misguided as to believe a diploma is more important than an education.

They should figure this out: The exam exists to pull poor and minority students out of an educational ghetto.

As board member Tacheny explained, the "real tragedy" in California public education is how few schools reflect the state average; most are significantly above it or below it. The exit exam has put low-performing schools on notice that they have to expect more from themselves, their teachers and students.

Besides, it's insulting to assume that minority and poor kids can't pass a basic test. And it's counterproductive to disallow an exit exam because some special-education students can't pass it -- especially when their school districts can issue certificates of completion in lieu of a diploma to students who don't have the capacity to learn basic academics.

In July, Californians likely will see the sad day when the state Board of Education votes to postpone the test as a requirement for graduation for two years. (State law allows the board to vote for one delay only.) Board president Reed Hastings explained that if the requirement begins with the class of 2004 as planned, a horrific 20 percent of graduates won't get diplomas.

His hope is that when the class of 2006 is ready to graduate, as improvements continue, more than 90 percent of the students will pass the test. Those who don't will be able to take the test after they finish school, according to the board, or earn a GED. Students who work hard will graduate with a diploma that tells the world they earned it.

Why not have a two-tiered diploma system -- where students who attended high school and received passing grades could receive a lesser diploma? The fear is that low-performing districts will funnel students into the lower track and condemn poor kids to a third-rate education and second-class sheepskin.

Sort of like what they get now, as advocates have worked to sabotage testing. This is their victory: For one in five graduates of the class of 2004, a California high school diploma will be a cruel hoax.