Students challenge unequal education: Tests that deny diplomas are in dispute

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OAKLAND, Calif. — As seniors across the state try on their caps and gowns, California is embroiled in controversy over its high school exit exams in English and math, slated to be required for a high school diploma starting this year.

Exit exams are a growing phenomenon across the country, with 26 states, enrolling nearly three-quarters of public school students, expected to mandate such tests by 2012.

Earlier this month, in a case brought by a group of high school seniors who had not passed the exams, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Robert Freedman ruled that because of inequities in the school system, many students have not had a chance to learn the material covered by the tests.

“There is evidence in the record that students in economically challenged communities have not had an equal opportunity to learn the materials,” Freedman wrote, adding that English-language learners continue to suffer disproportionately from lack of educational resources, including qualified teachers.

Freedman said students would suffer “significant risk” of emotional and practical harm from being denied a diploma, and ordered that diplomas be given this year to students who had completed all other graduation requirements.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell immediately appealed to the state Supreme Court to overturn Freedman’s ruling and to restore the exam as a requirement for diplomas this year. On May 24, the Supreme Court restored the requirement and sent the case to the state Court of Appeal for further action.

Among those who support delaying the requirement, there was general agreement that many districts, especially poorer working-class districts with large African American and Latino populations, had more limited funding, poorer facilities, higher class sizes, more English-learners, fewer teachers credentialed in the subjects they taught, and shortages of textbooks and other vital equipment. Many called for alternative types of assessment.

“Exit exams should be given when everything else is equal,” said Nativo Lopez, president of the Mexican American Political Association. But now, he said, funds, facilities and quality instruction are not equal throughout the state. “Therefore,” he added, “to expect that all students should meet a uniform standard based on a norm that doesn’t apply to many of the children and youth is patently unfair.”

“You’re actually punishing students for not getting the appropriate instruction, for not getting all the classes they need,” said Christina Wong, policy advocate with Chinese for Affirmative Action/Center for Asian American Advocacy. Wong said much more investment of time and resources will be needed to assure that all schools, starting with elementary grades, provide students with quality education.

While the numbers are smaller, Wong said, a significant portion of Asian students — especially those whose families have come as refugees — share the problems faced by Latino students who are English-learners. “These students are already playing catch-up,” she said. “To be faced with high stakes testing that will decide their future is really disheartening.”

Three Oakland High School students, sophomore Ashley Rivers, junior Airrika Williams and senior Jesse Green, said they encountered problems with test items they had not been taught in class, particularly in math. “Some of the questions we had, I didn’t get because they weren’t teaching it yet,” said Rivers. Williams pointed out that “sometimes kids have the ability to take the exam and pass both parts, but actually taking a test is a different story.”

“What they need to do instead of pressing the test on students is to teach the students effectively,” said Green.

All three said they had experienced overcrowded classes, unqualified teachers and shortages of textbooks. Besides adequate resources, they said, students need more tutoring and preparatory classes, particularly in math, so they can really understand what they’re being tested on.

The California Federation of Teachers “believes that any student who completes the requirements for graduation should receive a diploma,” said George Martinez, CFT’s early childhood/K-12 president. While diplomas could show who has passed the tests, Martinez said, exit exams “don’t go to the heart of the matter,” for not every student has the same pattern of abilities.

“We don’t think it’s a bad thing to test students’ skills,” said Mike Chavez, spokesperson for Californians for Justice, “but we do think there are much more effective ways to test skills, and to see if students are prepared for college and for different occupations.” In a second lawsuit, rejected by Judge Freedman, Californians for Justice had called for using alternative means such as senior portfolios and classroom evaluations.

A state law authored by then-state Sen. Jack O’Connell and passed in 1999 started the ball rolling for California’s exam. The requirement was initially set to take effect in 2004, but was delayed after an independent state-funded study found that instruction, especially in math, had not been effective for all students.

While overall nearly 90 percent of this year’s California seniors have passed the tests, an estimated 47,000 seniors have yet to pass one or both parts.

Researchers at UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access (UCLA-IDEA) pointed out in a 2005 study that more than a quarter of students who failed the English and/or math sections were concentrated in schools with overall failure rates of 40 percent or better. These schools, they said, made up about one-eighth of the state’s high schools and had eight times the rate of severe overcrowding and eight times the rate of severe teacher shortages, compared with schools with low failure rates.