This was a front page article in the San Francisco Chronicle. This year in California, the exam goes high stakes. This piece addresses how this exam is a very hard burden for English language learners. -Angela
by Nanette Asimov, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, February 27, 2006
For a 16-year-old, Iris Padilla's resume looks pretty good: Not only is she already a senior close to completing all the credits needed to graduate from Richmond High, she's president of a Latin American culture club and is active in political and religious clubs at school. Next year, Iris wants to go to college and study psychology.
But Richmond High might not let her graduate this spring.
That's because Iris hasn't passed the exit exam, and she has only one more chance before graduation day to tackle the two-day test, on March 21-22.
Iris is one of 73,270 California high school seniors in the same pickle -- unable to fulfill a new state law requiring students to pass a test of basic English, math and algebra to graduate. That's 1 in 5 members of the state's Class of 2006, says the state Department of Education.
More than half of those who still need to pass -- 40,002 students -- are like Iris: They don't speak much English.
The question of whether to deny diplomas to otherwise qualified students is divisive, with passions high on both sides. Critics sued state educators earlier this month, challenging the legality of the exam, while the same state educators say they are acting in the best interests of students.
"I need a diploma," said Iris, a chestnut-haired girl who was born in Los Angeles and grew up in the Mexican state of Jalisco. "I want it. I deserve it. I've been going to school and studying. I want to have a profession."
Iris said all of this in Spanish. She returned to California in 2004 after the grandmother she'd been living with in Mexico died. Now she lives with her Spanish-speaking mother in an apartment near Richmond High in the West Contra Costa Unified School District.
Iris' English is so iffy that pronouncing the words makes her blush. When pressed, she easily identified a shrimp but was stumped by a spoon. Asked by a reporter to write something in English, Iris crafted several simple sentences, including, "I was born in the United States," and "I think that the exit exam is innecesary." But like many students in her position, she's studying hard.
Her school day begins at 7:30 a.m. with an exit-exam prep class in math. Then it's on to geometry, economics, computer graphics, world history and an English-language class. She is passing them all. After school, Iris attends another prep class for the English portion of the test.
Her teacher, Isadora Martinez-McCoffey, has been teaching English to newcomers in the same classroom for 30 years and has seen most of them graduate, and many go on to college.
"Some have become dentists, hygienists, nurses, psychologists, teachers," said Martinez-McCoffey.
But now, she fears, students like Iris will stagnate.
With one month left to go before her final shot at passing the exit exam, Iris still finds an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem on the practice test impenetrable, and word problems in math as clear as Greek.
Does that mean Iris should be barred from walking across the graduation stage with her classmates, or that she should receive an empty envelope when theirs contains a diploma?
State Superintendent Jack O'Connell, who wrote the exit exam law in 1999 while a state senator, calls it "immoral" to award diplomas to students who can't pass the test.
"I was heartbroken by stories of high school graduates who could not read or write or understand basic computing," he told the state Board of Education recently. "Too many of those students were poor, Latino or African American, or students with disabilities."
Before the exit exam requirement, he said, "some schools pushed each and every student to succeed, while others, wallowing in the status quo of low standards, handed out diplomas to any student who simply put in seat time."
The exit exam has been administered for several years without a diploma penalty. Independent evaluators credit it with forcing thousands of schools to raise standards and push students to improve academically.
Joining O'Connell in applauding the exit exam's influence is a number of employers, lawmakers and state education officials who like having a consistent, minimum academic standard for all graduating seniors. Many say the standards, which measure skills taught between grades 6 and 10, should be even tougher.
"The need for the (exit exam) is simple," said Jim Lanich, president of California Business for Education Excellence, which includes some of the state's largest employers, from IBM to SBC. "Too many students graduate from high school unprepared for the challenges that lie ahead."
Not every business professional sees merit in a test that may turn out thousands of diploma-less adults, year after year.
"This exam is punitive," said Rene Antonio Mendieta, a San Lorenzo Realtor. "I would not have passed this test, and I got four or five 'Fs' in San Francisco State University. But I got help from tutors and professors. They took care of me, and now I'm giving back to the community."
A member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Alameda County, Mendieta showed up at a news conference this month in the San Francisco law offices of Morrison & Foerster, where attorneys announced they had filed the lawsuit challenging the exit exam.
Meanwhile, Iris is attending exit-exam prep classes each weekday.
Recently, she sat with 14 students in Martinez-McCoffey's English test-prep class studying sample pages from the exit exam. The test asks students to write one essay and answer 72 multiple-choice questions about passages they read, and about grammar.
Students who speak little English may have the test directions read to them in their home language. They may also use a hand-written glossary when taking the test, but only if there is no explanation of the English word beyond its exact translation. And they may take all day to finish.
In the prep class, the students studied a three-paragraph essay about zookeepers who kept poisoning koalas by feeding them young eucalyptus leaves, which can carry a toxin. Eventually, the zookeepers learned that only older leaves were safe.
Martinez-McCoffey called on a young man to read the essay aloud, which he did, stumbling over most of the words.
"Very good, caballero," Martinez-McCoffey told him, calling him a gentleman.
Then the class underlined unfamiliar words, and there were many: "wilds," "supply," "grove," "within," "quantities," "senses," "unknowingly," "starve," "trapped," "distinguish" and "thriving."
Martinez-McCoffey asked Iris to read a question about the essay. Haltingly, as if trying on a stiff new pair of shoes, Iris read: "What is the purpose of this article?" Then she correctly identified "to inform" as the answer.
But when the class turned to St. Vincent Millay's "The Courage That My Mother Had," the questions got tougher. The poem relies on the phrase "rock from New England quarried" as its primary metaphor, and one of the questions asked students to identify which poetic phrase created a tone of sadness and regret.
Only four students got it right. And two of them admitted they guessed.
"My heart just breaks, because many of these students have been in this country just six months or a year," Martinez-McCoffey said later, her eyes welling with tears.
She said the students are bright -- one is doing well in chemistry, and others are taking college-level Spanish -- but that it can take years to learn a language well enough to pass a 10th-grade English exam.
"Some have missed passing by 10 points. Some by 1 point," she said. "They're so disappointed. So hopeful."
If a student does not pass
Before the end of their senior year, California public school students have six opportunities to try to pass the exit exam.
Under state law, a 10th-grader can take the test one time, an 11th-grader twice and a 12th-grader three times.
Students who finish 12th grade without passing the exit exam can enroll in adult school and then have two opportunities per year to take the test, as long as they are enrolled in school, according to the state Department of Education.
Individual school district policies may vary on whether students enrolled in community college can take the exit exam after high school.
State law also offers these options for students who do not pass the exit exam by the end of their senior year in high school and want to earn a diploma:
Students are entitled to at least one year in a free class designed to tutor them after they complete 12th grade.
At any time after their senior year, former students can ask the district where they attended school to let them enroll for a 13th year. If the applicant is under 18, "the district is required to serve the student in an appropriate program," according to the state Department of Education. If the applicant is older than 18, admission is at the district's discretion.
Districts may permit students to move directly from grade 12 into an independent-study program to try to pass the exit exam.
Students who move directly from grade 12 into a charter school (an autonomous public program) can study at the charter school until age 22 in order to pass the exit exam and earn a diploma.
Some community colleges award high school diplomas through their noncredit adult-education programs and do not require students to pass the exit exam.
-- Nanette Asimov
E-mail Nanette Asimov at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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