Thursday, November 08, 2007

Report: California dropouts increase in first year of exit exam

By JULIET WILLIAMS, Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, November 7, 2007

(11-07) 18:12 PST SACRAMENTO, (AP) --

The number of California high school dropouts spiked in 2006, the first year seniors were required to pass the state's exit exam to graduate, according to a report presented Wednesday to the state Board of Education.

California's high school graduation rate also fell by about 4 percent from the previous year.

The analysis found that 24,000 high school seniors dropped out in 2006, about 10,000 more than just four years earlier.

The information could give ammunition to lawmakers and others who have criticized the exam, as well as those who have lobbied for alternative assessments.

The firm that prepared the report, Human Resources Research Organization of Alexandria, Va., made seven recommendations to the board, including a suggestion that California explore other ways for high school seniors to demonstrate proficiency. In Massachusetts and Washington state, for example, students can be judged on a portfolio of their high school work.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell has consistently opposed such an option. His chief deputy, Gavin Payne, told the board that the superintendent thought all but one of the recommendations was "extremely good."

The report's findings validate the position of exit exam opponents who say the test is hardest on students who do not have access to good schools or good teachers, said Liz Guillen, director of legislative and community affairs for Public Advocates. That applies mostly to poor and minority students, she said.

The San Francisco-based law firm has sued the state over the exam and sought alternatives.

"As a moral and constitutional matter, before every student can be required to pass the state's new hurdle, the state and its schools must first ensure that ... all of those students have had an opportunity to learn what is tested," she told the board.

The report also highlighted California's persistent achievement gap and found an even more worrisome problem: Students who are black, Hispanic, poor or learning English did even worse when they were in schools with high concentrations of similar students.

That poses a challenge for policymakers trying to address the achievement gap, since the vast majority of underachieving students are concentrated in such schools.

O'Connell has said he is determined to narrow that divide and is hosting an "Achievement Gap Summit" of education leaders next week in Sacramento.

Most students are able to pass the exam in time for graduation, although critics note that as graduation day approaches more students drop out of school and stop being counted.

In the class of 2007, for example, 93 percent of the senior class had passed the test by last May. Students begin taking the test during their sophomore year and have multiple chances to pass the exam, which measures ninth-grade English and ninth-grade math and algebra skills.

To settle a class-action lawsuit, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation last month in which the state agreed to provide two more years of remedial tutoring to high school students who can't pass the exam.

The 2007-08 state budget includes $72.4 million for supplemental instruction and $188 million for after-school and summer tutoring to help students pass.

He vetoed a bill that would have forced O'Connell to come up with alternative graduation requirements for students who are proficient but can't pass the exam. The governor said O'Connell already has that authority under existing state law.

The most recent exit exam results showed that more than 88 percent of black and Hispanic students passed the test, with both groups increasing their success rates but still lagging behind whites and Asians.

The report presented to the board on Wednesday is compiled annually as part of the law that established the exit exam. It also included some demographic information about the state's senior class, including the finding that California's schools fail many students who arrive at school knowing very little English.

"Many students are still classified as English-learners after as many as 10 years of education in this country," the report said.

Among the other recommendations:

• The state should do a better job tracking the students who don't pass the exam in time to graduate and don't keep taking it, as a way to see what happens to them. The state has said it does not have sufficient data systems to do this.

• School districts should consider moving more students with disabilities into regular classrooms so they have more exposure to the material tested on the exit exam and a greater opportunity to pass it.

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