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Test results show racial achievement gap

By David Scharfenberg Daily Planet Staff
Wednesday October 02, 2002

African-American and Latino students at Berkeley High School failed the 2002 California High School Exit Exam in large numbers, mirroring statewide trends and renewing local concerns about the “achievement gap” separating white and Asian students from African-Americans and Latinos. 

“That’s pretty distressing,” said Michael Miller, a member of Berkeley-based Parents of Children of African Descent. 

The High School Exit exam, designed to ensure that students graduate with basic skills in place, is divided into two parts, English and math, and the clearest evidence of the achievement gap came in the math section.  

Eight-two percent of white Berkeley High students passed the math portion of the test, compared to 30 percent of African-Americans and 26 percent of Latinos. 

Members of the Class of 2004 are the first students who must pass both portions of the test in order to graduate, although the state Board of Education may vote this summer to postpone the graduation requirement. 

If the exit exam remains a requirement, students who fail either section of the test will have seven chances to take it again before graduation. 

Students are not required to take the test until they are sophomores, but many members of the Class of 2004 volunteered to take the test in 2001 as freshmen.  

Those who passed as freshmen did not have to retake the exam last year.  

Hundreds of Berkeley High freshmen took one or both portions of the exam in 2001 and scored well above the state average. Sixty-four percent passed the math portion, compared to 44 percent statewide, and 76 percent passed English, versus 64 percent across the state. 

Latinos, in line with the overall trend, scored well above the statewide Latino average in 2001. Fifty-five percent passed the math section versus 25 percent statewide.  

But a substantial achievement gap still separated whites and Asians from African-Americans and Latinos. 

Parent activists said the lingering gap is of concern, and some argued the district is not doing enough to address the issue. 

“The question becomes what is the district trying to do except dismantle the programs supporting these kids,” said Miller, making reference to a planned consolidation of Berkeley High’s African-American Studies Department that the district reversed last week. 

Superintendent Michele Lawrence and members of the Board of Education have argued that they were unaware of the planned consolidation, a cost-cutting measure included in an agreement with the Berkeley Federation of Teachers this summer, and moved as quickly as possible to restore the department when they learned about the agreement. 

Miller said the district should begin implementing programs like Rebound, an intense mentoring and tutoring effort pushed by black parents in the Spring of 2001, to address the achievement gap. 

“I have no problem with Rebound-type programs,” said school board member John Selawsky. “My question is how do we fund them for the number of students who need them.” 

The Berkeley Unified School District currently faces a $3.9 million budget shortfall. 

Berkeley High special education students failed the exit exams in huge numbers, as did special education pupils statewide.  

Eighty-two percent of Berkeley High special education students failed math and 74 percent failed English. 

Oakland-based Disability Rights Advocates have filed suit against the state, claiming that the exit exam is unfair for special education students. 

One part of the suit challenges a provision in state law that invalidates special education students’ scores if they use a calculator, a spell checker or an aide to read aloud parts of the English exam or write for them. 

Braille, extra test-taking time, extended breaks and other accommodations are allowed if they are included in a student’s individual education plan. 

Staff attorney Melissa Kasnitz of Disability Rights Advocates said special education students use the forbidden accommodations for every other test they take in school. 

“Suddenly, on the most important standardized test of their educational career, they’re being told that if you use an accommodation you’ve always used, you can’t pass,” she said. 

Kasnitz said once a special education student passes the exam with one of the forbidden accommodations, a school district may apply for a waiver, allowing the student to graduate without a valid test score. 

Some community activists questioned the worth of the exit exam altogether, arguing that one test should not determine whether a student can graduate. 

“High stakes testing really is not going to help our educational process,” said school board candidate Derick Miller. 

“My hope is that we’ll be able to convince the folks up in Sacramento that punishing kids for adults’ mistakes is not the way to do it,” added school board candidate Nancy Riddle. 

While separate figures are available for the number of Berkeley High students who have passed the math portion and English portions of the test, in 2001 and 2002, there are no figures available for the number of students who have passed both. 

Students must pass both sections in order to graduate.