California High Schools Test Exit Exams

This year's high school seniors in California will be the first in the state to take a final test in order to graduate. The exit exam is daunting for many students, and the requirement has run into some objections.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Pass the test or you don't graduate. It's a simple sounding idea. Right now it's one of the most controversial in education. About half the states require students to pass an exit exam before they can get a diploma. One of them is California. This year, seniors are the first to face the new requirement, and for about 50,000 of them, time is running out. NPR's Elaine Korry has more.

ELAINE KORRY reporting:

Richard Williams Jr. is passionate about drawing; figures, tattoos, cartoons, he loves it all. The husky 18-year-old gets B's and C's at Oakland's Far West High School where he has big dreams.

Mr. RICHARD WILLIAMS Jr.: The college I want to go to is called Expressions and it's in Emeryville. It's actually not that far away from Pixar Studios, and actually when I get into there, I want to learn how to do computer animation.

KORRY: Williams is enthusiastic and determined. Just one thing stands in his way: the high-school exit exam.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Our entire future is based on this one test.

KORRY: After four attempts, Williams still hasn't passed the math portion and clearly he's upset.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Oh, man, how can they, like, jeopardize us actually getting a diploma because of this one test? I mean, honestly I don't want to go through life saying, `I could have been somebody.' I actually want to be somebody right now.

KORRY: For Williams and the rest of California's Class of 2006, good attendance and passing grades are no longer good enough. This year, California along with three other states, Arizona, Idaho and Utah, will begin withholding diplomas from seniors who fail their final exam. Here, it's a seven-hour test spread over two days of 10th-grade English and about ninth-grade math.

Mr. JACK O'CONNELL (Superintendent of Public Instruction, California): It's really the capstone of our accountability system.

KORRY: Jack O'Connell, California's superintendent of public instruction, is the major champion of the exam.

Mr. O'CONNELL: We want to make sure that students have basic understanding, basic concepts of tools necessary to survive in the real world. We want to make sure that they are prepared.

KORRY: The past requirement has been postponed for two years, but despite ongoing objections, O'Connell says this is the year the exit exam will count. He says it doesn't matter whether students are moving on to community college, a four-year university or to the workplace, the exit exam will prove they've got a minimum set of skills.

Mr. O'CONNELL: A high-school diploma will mean more in the future. It's not longer simply going to be a certification of seat time.

KORRY: Employers and educators have backed the exam even though some say it's not tough enough, but many critics doubt that it's relevant.

Mr. ARTURO GONZALEZ (Attorney): Here, a quick question the math test. The square of a whole number is between 1,500 and 1,600. The number must be between--and they give you four options.

KORRY: Attorney Arturo Gonzalez is preparing to sue California on behalf of students like Richard Williams who he says could be successful in life even though he hasn't passed the exam.

Mr. GONZALEZ: Is it accurate to say that if you can't answer these questions, then you don't deserve a diploma because then the diploma's meaningless? I think that demeans everything else that these kids learn during the 10 or 12 years that they're in our public schools.

KORRY: Many times, says Gonzalez, it's the schools themselves that fail students like Williams. We all know who will be hurt, he says, low-income blacks and Latinos or students with learning disabilities. To him, withholding their diplomas seems like piling on punishment, but Katie Haycock, director of the Education Trust in Washington, DC, says these kids are already being punished when they go out into the world not knowing ninth-grade math.

Ms. KATIE HAYCOCK (Director, Education Trust): The economy punishes them. Colleges punish them. The only thing we don't do is tell the kids themselves. We give them a high-school diploma. They think it means something. Then they show up on the job, they take an entry test. They show up in the community college, they take a placement test and that diploma turns to dust.

KORRY: And past experiences suggest the exit exam may be less of a train wreck than some fear. Before Massachusetts implemented its high-stakes exam in 2003, critics warned high percentages would fail and the dropout rate would soar, but Paul Reville, a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says the outcome was a pleasant surprise.

Mr. PAUL REVILLE (Faculty Member, Harvard Graduate School of Education): The percentage of young people who would fail was much smaller than expected. It seemed as though the new standard was something that both schools and students could rise to meet.

KORRY: Richard Williams is working hard to meet the challenge. With extra tutoring, he's brought his math grade up from a D to a B. He and other seniors will have one final crack at a diploma when they take the exit exam in March.

Elaine Korry, NPR News.

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