Exit Exam Stirs up Education Controversy in California

Fifty thousand California high school students are taking a test that will decide whether or not they graduate with their classmates. Supporters say the exit exam keeps education standards high, while critics see it as unfair to poor and minority students.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep.

This is a tense day for a lot of 12th graders in California. More than 50,000 will take a standardized test, ominously titled the California High School Exit Exam. The name says it all. If you want to escape with a diploma, you have to pass.

NPR's Elaine Korry reports.

ELAINE KORRY reporting:

Life Academy in Oakland is racially diverse. It's one of a new breed of small public schools formed when several large, troubled high schools were broken up. This academy targets the special needs of its low income students. About a third of them come from immigrant families. At lunch time on Fridays, teacher Antonio Acosta advises the Spanish speakers.

Mr. ANTONIO ACOSTA (Teacher, Life Academy): (Spanish spoken)

KORRY: 18 year old Andreas Navarete(ph) passed the math segment of the State Exit Exam on his first try. He can communicate in English, but he still hasn't passed the language arts portion. In the weeks leading up to the test, Navarete has been a regular at study hall.

Mr. ANDREAS NAVARETE (Student): I have read some books, and out of study hall, I have been reading books, too. So, I feel very confident with that. I feel like this time I'm going to pass it.

KORRY: Nothing would please Principal Allison McDonald more. McDonald says the dozen or seniors who haven't passed yet are good kids who show up and work hard. But some of them have had to overcome real obstacles--either abysmal early education, hair-raising problems at home, or even undiagnosed learning disabilities. So, she has mixed feelings about the Exit Exam.

Ms. ALLISON MCDONALD (Principal, Life Academy): I feel protective of some of our more vulnerable students. I also understand that in order to be really competitive in the outside world, these are really important skills.

KORRY: About half the states now require seniors to pass a final high school test of basic skills to graduate. Employers and many educators say this kind of test is essential if a diploma is to mean anything. In some states such as Massachusetts, where the test was fought for many years, the pass rate turned out to be roughly 95 percent. But student advocates say that doesn't help the few who don't make it.

Mr. ARTURO GONZALEZ (Attorney): Sadly, but expectedly, the kids who haven't passed this test buy and large are from low-income schools, and the vast majority are black and Latino.

KORRY: Last month, San Francisco lawyer Arturo Gonzalez sued California on behalf of a group of high school seniors who passed all their classes and fulfilled all the other requirements to graduate, except for passing the test. Gonzalez says to deny them a diploma now doesn't serve anyone's interests.

Mr. GONZALEZ: You're taking kids who, in many cases, already have a difficult time just getting by. Many of these kids have to work to help pay the bills. And you're further demoralizing these kids, and I just don't think it's going to do society any good.

Mr. JACK O'CONNELL (California School Superintendent): I think it would be huge mistake if we were to exempt any group of students from this accountability system.

KORRY: California School Superintendent Jack O'Connell has been a big supporter of the Exit Exam. He has given some special education students a one year reprieve, but he's standing firm on the pass requirement for everybody else.

Mr. O'CONNELL: If we hold our school system accountable, then we will get more attention, more focus, more resources to that group of students. If you exempt any group of students, we won't be doing our job.

KORRY: Results from this test won't be out until a few weeks before graduation. O'Connell says seniors who fail it this time won't graduate with their class. He says they can try again over the summer, repeat a year of high school, or attend community college until they pass the test.

Elaine Korry, NPR News.

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