Local High School Students Await Judge’s Decision on Exit Exam

Suzanne La Barre
Friday May 12, 2006

High school seniors who have not passed the exit exam could score a reprieve today. 

Alameda Superior Court judge Robert Freedman tentatively ruled in favor of a temporary injunction Monday. Today (Friday) he could finalize that ruling, paving the way for general education students in the class of 2006, who have met all other graduation requirements but have not passed the exit exam, to earn a high school diploma.  

The decision would come just over a week after the California Department of Education (CDE) announced results that 46,768 seniors statewide still had not passed the test, including more than 180 students in the Berkeley Unified School District.  

This is the first year the CDE is holding general education students to the requirement. (Special education students were granted a one-year exemption in January.) The test assesses 6th- to 8th-grade math, and 9th- and 10th-grade English language arts. A writing section is included. 

“I’m glad,” said Alternative High School student Guillermo Ronquillo Tuesday, when he learned of the tentative ruling. “But I still want to take the test to prove that I can do it.” 

Ronquillo emigrated from El Salvador to the United States five years ago and learned English from scratch. He has failed the English portion each of the four times he has tested, mostly because when he writes, he thinks and formulates sentences in Spanish. His grades are good, he has completed all the credits he needs to graduate, but the exit exam is holding him back, he said. 

“I come from another country,” he said. “Why should I be discriminated against because English isn’t my first language?” 

The lawsuit’s primary claim is that the test is unfair because many low-income and minority students, particularly English language learners, lack the necessary resources to pass the exam. 

Data show that English language learners, economically disadvantaged students, and African American and Latino students are passing at a lower rate than the statewide average.  

According to February test results, 71.2 percent of the state’s English language learners had passed the test, compared with 96.5 percent of white students and 89.3 percent of all students. 

At Berkeley High School, about 15 of 44 students in the English Language Learner department have not passed the English portion of the exam. 

“To me, it just seems unfair that this exit exam would prevent kids who are doing really well from graduating,” said Berkeley High homeschool liaison Raul Hernandez, who regularly fields inquiries from students desperate to find out whether or not they’ve passed. Results from a March administration of the exam are expected later this month. 

Original legislation dictated that students from the class of 2004 pass the test to earn diplomas, but because of disappointing scores, the state Board of Education agreed to postpone the requirement. 

A study conducted by the Center on Education Policy in 2003 found that 19 states have mandatory exit exams and another five—including California—were expected to implement tests by 2008. However, many of those states offer testing alternatives, whereas California does not, prompting some to question the fairness of the exam. 

“I understand we need some national standards, but a racially, ethnically, class-biased test—to put everyone to that standard means we’re not really doing justice to the students,” said Alternative High School teacher Kahlil Jacobs-Fantauzzi. 

Nonetheless, almost three-quarters of Californians believe that students should pass a statewide test to graduate from high school, according to a survey published by the Public Policy Institute of California in April. 

Victor Diaz, principal of the Alternative High School, agrees. On Wednesday, he called the tentative ruling “tragic,” insisting that high-stake test taking is an indispensable skill, particularly for low-income and minority students. 

“Most white kids grow up in an environment where testing is a common occurrence,” he said. “A lot of curriculum that kids of color face is just not designed like that. That, along with low expectations [means] our kids leave high school without the necessary tools [to succeed] ... To say you’re not going to have standardized testing until schools are equitable ... it seems like that would never happen.” 

In the fall, more than half the alternative school’s 30 seniors had not passed either portion of the exam. Teachers and administrators pushed students to ramp up on test preparation with one-on-one tutors, Saturday classes and extra math courses.  

At Berkeley High School, many English Language Learners have been attending a seventh-period exit exam tutorial since the beginning of the year. 

Alternative High School student Trina, who asked the Daily Planet not to use her last name, struggled relentlessly with the math portion of the test, and finally passed on her fifth try. It was an uphill battle, she said, ruing the many Saturdays she spent attending extra preparation sessions, instead of sleeping in. 

“Do you know how hard I worked?” she said. “I think the exit exam is good. It challenges your mind. It shows what you know and what you don’t know. If students need it to graduate, they’ll try.””