Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Hispanic and African American students were more likely to fail the California high school exit exam than whites and Asians

Nanette Asimov:

The final tally of high school seniors who failed the statewide exit exam is in: 40,173 students -- more than half of whom would have otherwise graduated this year -- did not pass the test, the state Department of Education announced Friday.

Passing the exit exam was a graduation requirement for the first time this spring, causing anguish for students who had satisfied all other graduation requirements except the test of basic math and English skills.

Based on a poll of the state's largest districts, an estimated 5 percent of all 2006 seniors ultimately did not graduate solely because they couldn't pass the exam, state officials said.

Those students -- who would have qualified for graduation in prior years but leave high school empty-handed this year -- are at the center of a lawsuit that seeks to nullify the exit exam on constitutional grounds. The case goes to a state appeals court for a hearing on Tuesday.

Many of those students tried to pass the test in May, when it was given for the last time before graduation in June. The new results show that only 1,759 seniors managed to pass at that time, compared with 4,542 who succeeded in the March administration of the test.

Statewide, 9 percent of the Class of 2006 failed the exit exam, while seniors at the Bay Area's largest school districts fared worse. In San Francisco, 12 percent of seniors failed, while 13 percent did not pass in the West Contra Costa Unified School District and 43 percent failed in the Oakland Unified School District.

Hispanic and African American students were more likely to fail than their white and Asian counterparts. Through May, 97 percent of white students and 95 percent of Asian students had passed, compared with 85 percent of Hispanic students and 83 percent of African Americans.

Because it takes two months to score the tests, students who passed in May and were otherwise qualified to graduate will now receive their diplomas, many of them in special summer ceremonies organized by their districts. San Francisco Unified, for example, will hand out diplomas to all eligible students in a ceremony later this month.

The law gives students six chances to pass the exit exam between 10th and 12th grade. But state schools Superintendent Jack O'Connell, who wrote the exit exam legislation when he was a state senator in 1999, has said there is no statute of limitations for students who want to continue trying to pass the exam and earn a diploma.

For now, in addition to the regularly scheduled test dates, the state Legislature approved funding in the recently signed budget for two additional administrations of the exam for the class of 2006. The first is next week, and the second is on two Saturdays in December -- English and math on separate days -- to accommodate adult school or independent study students who work.

"I urge these students to continue to work in summer school, take a fifth year of high school, or study in adult school or community college to acquire those important skills in English and math," O'Connell said.

Many students are doing just that.

Iris Padilla, 17, who did not pass the exam despite having satisfied all other graduation requirements at Richmond High, studies English twice a week at Contra Costa Community College. She plans to take the English portion of the test on Tuesday and the math portion on Wednesday.

"I know I'm not going to pass," Iris said.

Like 41 percent of those who haven't passed, Iris speaks little English. She was born in Los Angeles but grew up in Mexico. Now, living with her Spanish-speaking mother in Richmond, she is torn between her need to learn English and her fear of speaking the unfamiliar words.

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