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BHS Test Results Prompt Questions

Friday October 17, 2003

Berkeley school officials tempered optimism about skyrocketing test scores for Berkeley High School students reported in the Daily Planet (“BHS Student Test Scores Soar,” Oct. 14-16) with cautions that the upbeat numbers failed to take into account differing testing populations and the worrisome stagnation of some groups of students. 

“I’m pleased Berkeley kids did better than the state average, but it is a serious concern to me that we have almost 200 juniors (nearly 25 percent of the class) that, had this counted for them, might not have been able to graduate,” said Berkeley Unified School District Superintendent Michele Lawrence. 

The state Monday released scores from last spring’s California State Exit Exam, which—starting with the class of 2006—all students must pass in order to graduate. The test, aimed to ensure that students acquire basic language and math skills, was initially set to have gone into effect for the class of 2004, but state education officials, faced with thousands of failing grades, pushed back the requirement this July. 

Students who fail the test as sophomores will be given seven tries to pass during their next two years. 

Results just released showed marked improvements from the 2002 scores, but BUSD Director of Research and Evaluation Peter Bloomsburg said comparison between the two years were unfair because the testing populations were different. 

Students aren’t required to take the test until they are sophomores, but hundreds from the class of 2004 volunteered to take the test in 2001 as freshmen. Those who passed were excused from taking the test again, so the bulk of test takers in 2002—unlike those in 2001 or 2003—had either failed the test the year before or had elected not to take it as freshmen. 

The best comparison to measure progress, Bloomsburg said, is to match sophomores from the class of 2005—who took the test for the first time last spring—against freshman from the class of 2004, who took the test for the first time in 2001. 

Of the roughly 700 sophomores who took the test last spring, 75 percent passed the math section, compared to 64 percent of freshmen in 2001, and 86 percent passed English, compared to 76 percent in 2001. In 2002, 39 percent passed math and 57 percent passed English. 

Among tenth-graders taking the exam for the first time last summer, Berkeley continued to outpace students from across the county and the state. In Alameda, 65 percent of sophomores passed math and 75 percent passed English, compared to statewide passing rates of 59 percent and 78 percent. 

But district officials said the news wasn’t all good. 

Students who took the exam as juniors last year after failing one or both sections as sophomores did poorly, with 29 percent passing math and 39 percent passing English. That meant that had the state kept the exit exam as a graduation requirement, more than 200 members of this year’s senior class would be in danger of not receiving diplomas. 

Similarly distressing was the performance of English learners—foreign students who have yet to score in the 50th percentile on standardized English tests. They trailed their counterparts across the state in English with a passing rate of 31 percent compared to 33 percent statewide. 

“Our kids need to be better than the state,” said Lawrence, adding that English learners were a difficult subgroup to analyze because many were recent arrivals in the district. 

High stakes tests like the state high school exit exam have mushroomed over the past five years in response to concerns that students—especially in poor urban and rural districts—graduate without a grasp of basic skills. 

Gov. Davis signed the exam law with bi-partisan support in 1999, but a growing legion of critics is questioning the fairness and effectiveness of the tests. 

“They’re a political tool,” said Tammy Johnson, director of the Race and Public Policy Program at the Oakland-based Applied Research Center. “The districts and politicians get the headline that scores are up. Meanwhile students suffer with emergency licensed teachers and out-of-date textbooks.” 

She and other critics argue that exit exams lead to more spending on test preparation courses instead of on enrichment classes, stifle teacher creativity, and create a biased system in which kids in poorer districts lacking educational resources are expected to compete with students in wealthier schools. 

Test scores show that, across the state, economically disadvantaged students scored far lower than other students, with passing rates of 31 percent for math and 51 percent for English, compared to 51 percent and 75 percent for wealthier students. 

Recent studies of high school exit exams now mandated in 19 states show mixed results. 

Keith Gayler of the Washington-based, non-partisan Center on Education Policy authored a report released in August that found that exit exams highlighted educational disparities and led to more funding for poorer districts. 

His study also found exit exam schools did a better job of teaching to state curriculum standards. “Talking to teachers, they said [the exams] really change what they do for kids because they know the stakes are higher for them,” he said. 

But the high stakes can have devastating implications for students struggling to pass the test, leading to increased dropout rates. “These tests are the tipping point for many students,” he said. “If they fail, that’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back.” 

Recent news accounts have spotlighted districts that push struggling students towards lower diplomas to keep district test scores improving. A scandal erupted in the Houston school district—praised as a model for the benefits of high stakes testing by former Texas Governor George W. Bush—when investigators found that 16 of the district’s middle and high schools had falsified student records and listed dropouts as transfers in order to boost test scores. 

Another concern for Gayler is that states are mandating the tests without providing districts money to help students struggling to pass it. 

Lawrence said that has been an issue in Berkeley, where the district faces a steep budget deficit and has limited resources to help students at risk of failing. The district offered a summer prep course for students who failed previous tests, said Berkeley High Vice Principal Mike Hassett, but demand evaporated after the state pushed back the requirement to the class of 2006.  

District officials said they had set up a test prep course for English Learner students, focused math and English classes to address exam material, set up a community-assisted volunteer writing lab, and opened opportunities for students to take an extra class in a subject in which they are struggling. 

The California test remains on shaky ground despite the two-year postponement. 

Mike Kirst, a professor at Stanford who helped design the test, said that if failure rates continue to hover around 20 percent, state legislators would face enormous pressure to postpone the exam again. This year several states, including Nevada, Washington and Florida either postponed their tests or eased standards due to low scores. 

Kirst warned the test could be prone to a lawsuit, after the state’s independent analyst, Human Resources Research Organization (HumRRO), found that many districts had so far failed to absorb the state curriculum, potentially hindering those districts’ students from passing the test. “If I’m a lawyer, I take that report and hang it around the state’s neck,” Kirst said. 

The HumRRO report suggested that students who fail the exam but pass their classes could possibly receive a supplemental diploma. 

Lawrence derided the proposal as a “terrible idea,” arguing that a lesser diploma would segregate students and take the pressure off the district to make sure that students are prepared to pass the exam.