Page One

Students gear up for state exit exam

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet Staff
Monday March 05, 2001

Amidst all the talk of educational standards emanating from Washington, D.C., Berkeley High School freshman will get a taste of what politicians closer to home have dreamed up to improve student achievement when they take the state’s new High School Exit Examination this week. 

And if the Berkeley example is any indication, the implementation of new academic standards around the country is likely, at least for a while, to raise more questions than answers.  

High School freshman all over the state will play the role of guinea pigs Wednesday March 7 as they take first the English-language arts and again Tuesday March 13 for the mathematics sections of the new exam. 

A centerpiece of education reforms proposed by Gov. Gray Davis in 1999, the test will be administered to all sophomores beginning next year. Based on state content standards, the exam represents what a panel of experts have determined all students should know to graduate high school. 

The class of 2004 — or today’s freshman — will be the first class for which it will be required to pass the exit exam to get a high school diploma. But students who fail part of the exam as sophomores will be allowed to retake that part of the exam each subsequent year, giving them a second and a third chance to graduate on schedule.  

Wednesdays’ test has already created small waves of confusion and panic among Berkeley High students and their parents.  

“Some parents are a little unclear. They wonder if their kids don’t pass the test as a freshman does that mean they flunk (high school),” said Karen Sarlo, Berkeley Unified School District public information officer. 

As recently as last Friday, Berkeley High freshman Anjuli Martin didn’t know when the test would be.  

“Oh, it’s next week?” she said. “We haven’t talked about it like at all. I have no clue what it is and it’s like five hours long.” 

The test is supposed to voluntary, but Berkeley High Principal Frank Lynch said he expects all the school’s freshmen to take the test Wednesday. 

Adding to the confusion, perhaps, is the fact that the state legislature is still debating whether or not Wednesday’s voluntary test should be for real or just for practice. Democrats tried but failed to pass a measure to make it a practice test late last week. They are expected to try again today. 

State Democrats are afraid that, unless the whole class of 2004 takes the test at the same time under the same circumstance, the state will be exposed to lawsuits alleging unequal treatment. But Republicans who voted against last week’s measure argue that it’s unfair to students who have prepared for Wednesday’s test to make it invalid at the last minute. 

Berkeley High freshman Amelia McGowan agreed. If Berkeley High students are expected to take the test “it should at least count,” she said. 

Lynch admitted that the whole idea of the new exam makes him uneasy. 

“You name the fear and I’ve got it,” Lynch said, adding that it may not be good for students to lose two more days of instructional time to more testing. 

Since the exit exam is based on the same state standards as the STAR exam — the standardized test all students betwen grades 2 and 11 must take each spring — Lynch questions why the STAR is not used to determine who is ready to graduate.  

“Why not just use the results of the STAR test?” Lynch asked.  

Lynch said he is treating Wednesday’s exam as practice mostly for the benefit of the school, which can use the results to determine how better to prepare students for next year’s test. 

For Kristin Shepherd, co-president of the Berkeley High Parent, Teachers and Students Association (PTSA), it is the state of California that has the most to prove with the new exit exam. 

“The exam should be seen as a test of the state’s commitment to our children,” Shepherd said. “If the state provides the necessary resources for each and every child to succeed at the level of competency represented by the exam, then that is an honorable commitment. But if the state’s proposing to place a failing status on students who were never given appropriate educational opportunities, then it’s simply mean spirited.” 

State Sen. Don Perata (D-Oakland), a former public school teacher, is already doubtful that the exam will help the state address its educational challenges, said spokesperson Erin Niemela. 

“He doesn’t think it’s a realistic gauge of how kids are doing,” Niemela said.  

Finally, some worry that the test will be simply to difficult and will result in a demoralizing failure rate, as has happened with new standardized tests elsewhere in the country. 

“If it’s like the SAT, no one will pass,” said Berkeley High senior Marie Waleedej. 

Instead of implementing more tests, the state should be focused on improving the overall school experience, Waleedej said. 

“School should be more about content and just like experiencing school life, social life and homework. Not like, ‘Oh my God, if I don’t pass the test I’m not going to be able to leave,” Waleedej said.