New Law Leaves Some California Students Behind

A new law in California requires high school seniors to pass an exit exam in order to graduate. Some seniors, who have failed the test, now are preparing to take it again.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

For many families, Labor Day means one thing - the start of a new school year. And for many high school graduates, that means the end of summer and moving on to college.

But for some Los Angeles students who failed California's high school exit exam, it's time for plan B - test preparation courses. Reporter Jene Darden caught up with a few teens as they prepared to take the state test again.

JENE DARDEN reporting:

The sun is beaming over Maxine Waters Employment Prep Center, an adult school in Watts. A few students joke around while eating lunch in the picnic area.

Inside the classroom students like Lovie Macintyre(ph) aren't smiling. That's because Lovie had planned to graduate from King Drew High School in June but she did not pass the California High School exit exam, the CAHSEE. This summer Lovie is one of 250 students enrolled at Maxine Waters, where they are studying to retake the exam in order to earn their diplomas. Lovie's bright brown eyes dim when she remembers failing the test by two points.

Ms. LOVIE MACINTYRE (Student): I feel sad because you know I couldn't get my diploma. It's not fair at all because you know the people that worked hard to graduate, they - they can't graduate now, you know, because of this test. It's like it's really just messing us up.

DARDEN: The CAHSEE test students English and math skills through 10th grade levels. Students begin taking the test as sophomores and retake it five times by the end of their senior year. High schools offer CAHSEE prep courses beginning in the 10th grade, but the test is still relatively new. The class of 2006 was the first required to pass the exam for graduation. According to recent figures in Los Angeles, the state's largest school district, 14 percent of seniors failed the exam. Statewide the failure rate is 9 percent. Although most California seniors pass the exam the CAHSEE has been criticized as being too arbitrary. UCLA education professor John Rogers has done numerous studies on the exam. He says the CAHSEE's unfair.

Professor John Rogers (Education professor, UCLA): In 1999 when the legislation was created it said very clearly that it was the responsibility of districts to ensure that conditions were in place for all students to be successful on the exam. That has not happened in many schools across the state. And it particularly has not happened in a large proportion of schools serving low income kids of color and immigrant students.

DARDEN: In California African American, Latino and low income students have an 11 to 14 percent lower pass rate than white students. Ed Morris is director of LA Unified's adult instruction. He says a lack of resources in school and at home affect student performance on the test.

Mr. ED MORRIS (Director, LA Unified adult instruction): You can pretty much tell by zip code whether they're going to pass or not. Many of the schools in South Central, Jordan, Locke, Crenshaw, Dorsey have all had some problems with the numbers and getting people to pass the test.

(Soundbite of students)

DARDEN: Luzette Arbena(ph) is a Venice High graduate. She passed the exam on the first try and says students can't point the finger at schools if they fail.

Ms. LUZETTE ARBENA (Venice High graduate): It's not about oh the school being a bad school. It's about the student. If you're a bad student then for sure you're not going to graduate.

DARDEN: Some teachers support the test and don't feel it's unfair like Joann Manning, a Continuation School teacher I met at the mall. Joann has been teaching for more than 20 years.

Ms. JOANN MANNING (Teacher, Continuation School): Our students are at risk and our students have been successful in passing the high school exit exam. But we do a lot of prep for our students. From my experience it's information that they should know or that they should have gotten or is not anything they can't get.

DARDEN: Back at Maxine Waters School self-esteem is low for CAHSEE students. Diondre Saunders(ph) took prep courses during the school year to sharpen his math skills. An outspoken teen from Locke High Diondre's confidence dips when it's test time.

Mr. DIONDRE SAUNDERS (Student, Maxine Waters School): I just have no idea why I didn't pass. I tried the hardest I could, maybe I just wasn't qualified.

DARDEN: Dr. Janet Clark is the tough love principle at Maxine Waters Prep. She recognizes another challenge after hearing Diondre's doubts.

Dr. JANET CLARK (Principle, Maxine Waters Prep School): We've got to change that thought process that the test is something to assess what they need to know. It's - and it takes out the intimidation. I'm going to take this test to identify the areas I need to study more for. And that takes the weight off of it rather than I'm going to take this test and I'm going to fail. And therefore I won't get my diploma.

DARDEN: Educators say the length of the courses depends on the student's skills. This means it may take students a few months to more than a year before they pass the exam. Seniors who failed the CAHSEE are also looking into GED programs, community colleges, and a fifth year of high school to earn their degree.

For NPR News I'm Jene Darden.

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