Raising the bar

As Eduwonk writes, Russlynn Ali of Education Trust-West has produced an eloquent defense in “California at the Crossroads” of the state graduation exam, which requires all students — however disadvantaged — to demonstrate mastery of basic literacy and math skills to earn a diploma. Students must earn a 55 percent on a multiple-choice test of math skills, up to algebra, and 60 percent on a test of language skills, up to 10th grade English.

California standards were adopted when this year’s senior class was in the first grade. And we haven’t taught many of them even up to middle school standards. It only punishes them more to give them an empty piece of paper we call a diploma when their high school experience hasn’t prepared for any of the skills they’ll need after high school. We give them a diploma that is a doorway to a street corner or unemployment line.

The exit exam “shines a bright spotlight on inequities,” Ali writes, forcing adults to stop making excuses and start doing something to bring all students up to minimal standards. For example, Los Angeles school officials looked at English Language Learners who kept failing the test and realized that two-thirds had been in special programs for non-fluent students for more than 10 years. The district decided to rethink its approach.

At Downtown College Prep, 10th graders pass the state exam at rates much higher than the California average or the average at all the nearby public schools. Ninety percent of students come from Hispanic families; 38 percent are classified as English Language Learners. In all categories, students outdo the state and district average. I explain how the charter school succeeds with kids who’ve earned D’s and F’s in middle school in Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the School That Beat the Odds.

Statewide, pass rates are up slightly for students hoping to graduate in 2007 and 2008 — except for English Language Learners. A new survey finds minority parents strongly support the graduation exam, even if their own children have failed it on the first try.

In Texas, some former students keep retaking the graduation exam for years after they’ve left school, reports the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which focuses on a woman who passed the math portion on her 15th try.

Center on Education Policy report concludes legal challenges are discouraging more states from adopting exit exams and encouraging more flexibility in ways to qualify for a diploma. Twenty-five states with two-thirds of all public school students now require a graduation exam. CEP finds the exams have a slight negative effect on graduation rates and a significant influence on curriculum, leading to more focus on language arts, math and science.

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