For most of her life Alanna Baeks, a junior at Berkeley High School, has been told all she needed to do to get her diploma is accumulate the necessary course credits and eke out a C-minus average. Now she isn’t sure she’ll graduate, even though she’s taking the required classes and making reasonable grades.
That’s because Baeks, like thousands of students statewide, has not passed the exit exam required as part of Gov. Gray Davis’ 1999 education reform bill. The class of 2004 began taking the test in 10th grade and will be given seven attempts to pass.
Baeks said she passed the English portion of the test, but was 15 points shy of passing the math section. She’ll get another crack at it, but still questions the fairness of the new system.
“What if you get straight As and flunk the test? Do you still not graduate? And what about people in special ed — do they not have to take it? If so, I’m signing up for special ed next year,” she said.
She might not have to go to such an extreme. A bill proposed by Assemblymember Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) would eliminate the state exit exam requirement and leave it to school districts to decide whether they want to use the test as a criterion for graduation.
Hancock’s bill passed out of the Education Committee in mid-March and is slated to go before the Appropriations Committee in early May.
Proponents of the bill, which is being sponsored by the California Teachers Association, say the exit exam unfairly punishes students for inequalities in the educational system.
“We shouldn’t be holding those students who are the most vulnerable accountable for the fact that they’ve been given an inadequate education,” said Deborah Palmer, a former teacher at Berkeley’s Rosa Parks Elementary School and a doctorate student in education at UC Berkeley. “We should hold the governor accountable for not providing the schools with highly trained teachers in high-poverty areas.”
Emily Hobson, a researcher for Californians for Justice, an organization dedicated to education reform, says the problem of underfunded, low-income schools is even more of a problem during the current budget crisis.
“This is particularly true now during this budget crisis when a lot of funding to schools is being cut,” she said.
She added that it’s also unfair to special education students and those learning English as a second language.
Past test results reveal disparities along ethnic and racial lines. In 2002, 32 percent of students statewide passed the math portion of the test. Only 20 percent of African Americans and 22 percent of Latinos passed the math portion.One group that has lobbied against Hancock’s bill is the California Republican Women, who advocate for tough standard-based means to improving schools.
Another defender is the governor’s Education Secretary Kerry Mazonni. Although the secretary’s office has not taken an official position on the bill, a spokesman for Mazonni said the bill’s proponents are misguided and the exam requirement has led to increased focus on achievement. She said eliminating the state mandate and giving local districts the freedom to make the exam optional would weaken test results and make it harder to use the data to measure success.
“It does students no favor to hand them a diploma if they are not equipped to succeed at community college or vocational school, let alone at a university,” said spokesman Ann Bancroft.
Bancroft also disputed claims that low-performing schools lack the resources to adequately educate students, citing the governor’s $9.6 million increase in education spending over the last four years.
Another portion of Hancock’s bill would exempt second-graders from taking the STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting Program) test, an exam that students in grades two through 11 are required to take to measure student achievement and gauge school competency. The bill also would remove the provisions in the 1999 law that allows states to reward and sanction schools based on their students’ performances on the STAR exam.