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Students not impressed by statewide test

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet Staff
Thursday March 08, 2001

As they gathered in the Berkeley High School courtyard to let off steam after Wednesday’s first ever, statewide High School Exit Examination, frustrated ninth-graders were busy preparing a little quiz of their own: 

Question # 1: Why us? 

Question # 2: What’s the point? 

Question # 3: Do adults really think this is a reasonable measure of how smart we are, or how much we have learned in school? 

As the class of 2004, these freshman are the first group of students who will have to pass the exam to receive a high school diploma. Based on California Content Standards for what students ought to learn by the tenth grade, the test was at the heart of education reforms proposed by Governor Gray Davis in 1999. It’s supposed to help ensure that students graduate with the basic skills they need for college and work.  

But after taking the five-hour “English-language arts” portion of the new exam Wednesday, Berkeley freshman were skeptical at best. 

“It was a waste of my time,”said Berkeley High freshman Ella Bacon. “If you look at it you can tell it doesn’t tell if you’re smart.” 

The test was so easy “it was boring,” said ninth-grader Sade Price.  

“It’s like we’re in kindergarten,” chimed in freshman Naomi Moore. 

Many other Berkeley High freshman agreed. For one of two essays on the test students were asked to write about a movie they had seen, prompting some to wonder what relevance this has to school standards. Other students said reading comprehension questions were a poor test of reading ability because they were written in a way that gave away the answers. 

Education experts expressed some surprise at students’ reactions to the test, but also warned that any reaction to the test is premature until the results are in. 

“The fear has been that we will have a high number of kids who can’t pass it because it’s too hard,” said Stephen Goldstone, Berkeley Unified School District interim superintendent. Goldstone said the state has yet to determine what score a student will need to pass the exam, but added that a perception that the test is too easy could lead many to question its effectiveness. 

“Everything I’ve heard is that (the test) is supposed to be very challenging,” Goldstone said. “The expectation is that (the test) will raise standards.” 

“Kids may have been showing a lot of bravado,” said Adam Berman, a consultant with the California Department of Education who worked on the development of the exit exam. 

Berman said students lulled into a false sense of security by Wednesday’s test may be in for a surprise when they take the mathematics portion of the test next Tuesday.  

“I couldn’t pass it if my life depended on it,” Berman said of the math test. 

Berman visited a high school in Sacramento after Wednesday’s test and said he found students’ reactions mixed, with students who typically do well academically calling it easy and students who struggle in school calling it difficult.  

Berman emphasized that the test is really an assessment of last resort intended to make sure students don’t graduate without a certain minimum level of skills. 

“We’ve all heard the stories of the kids who graduate high school without being able to read,” Berman said. “This is a fair test for what it does.” 

Tests such as the Golden State Examinations are much more challenging because their intent is to identify top students for the purposes of college admissions, Berman said. 

Berkeley Adult School Counselor John McKewn, who proctored Wednesday’s test for five adult school students, said he expected the test to be more difficult than it was. But after years of social promotion when students have been advanced without mastering material, the exit exam is important, McKewn said. 

“This is a reading comprehension test measuring a person’s ability to comprehend what they read,” McKewn said. “That’s what schools teach.” 

“You’ve got to have at least this minimal level of literacy to have any claim on a high school diploma,” McKewn added. 

The test was very similar to a proficiency test all Berkeley High school students were required to pass until last year, McKewn said, expressing concern that a whole group of students – today’s sophomores, juniors and seniors – will graduate without a minimum proficiency test of any kind. 

“In a perfect world you might not need these kinds of tests, but we’re not living in a perfect world,” McKewn said. 

Berkeley High math teacher Phillipe Henri said there is frustration in the math department that they’re losing more instructional days to a test that “can’t measure everything that you’d like to measure in terms of achievement and growth.” 

The push for higher standards could end up hurting the very students it’s supposed to help, Henri said, pointing to the fact that all Berkeley High nint -graders are now required to take Algebra – a subject that makes up 15 percent of the exit exam’s math component – whether they’re ready for it or not. 

This is setting students up to fail, lose faith in themselves and become alienated from academics, Henri said.