Editorial: Data show HS exit exam is working

Proponents of the California High School Exit Exam — which included The Examiner since the beginning — have reason to feel vindicated by the new seventh annual evaluation from the independent Human Resources Research Organization. This report covers the 2005-06 school year, when passing the exit exam fully became a high school graduation requirement.

Although problem areas remain, such as bringing non-native English learners up to par in the basic 10th-grade language and mathematics skills, the class of 2006 results show that the exit exam is essentially working as hoped. The facts support the idea that accountability for students and teachers is much better than just continuing to give kids diplomas for attending school through 12th grade even if they did learn how to read, write or do arithmetic.

One of the most encouraging findings from the Human Resources Research Organization is that, contrary to the dire predictions of anti-testing advocates, there are now some one-third fewer high school dropouts than in 1999. Although admittedly this year’s dropout rate climbed slightly by 0.6 of a percentage point, most high school seniors who still needed to pass the exit exam did not slack off from their 12th-grade work.

The report’s biggest surprise is that the number of high school juniors and seniors choosing to take advanced placement classes jumped from 13 percent to 21 percent between 2000 and 2005. It is as if disadvantaged teens, getting their first serious taste of being systematically trained and tested on what they learned, suddenly developed enough confidence to enter college preparatory courses. Concurrently the California student scores on college placement tests improved in 2005.

Some of the most impressive improvements came from immigrant students who started out as English-language learner but earned reclassification as fluent in English. This subgroup passed both portions of the exit exam at higher rates than the overall student population.

On the other hand, exam results consistently show that, even though more than half the students still classified as English-language learners attended public school in the United States for 10 years or more, these students have among the lowest group pass rates. This is particularly worrisome because one in four California students is learning English as a new language.

The Human Resources Research Organization, which is now entering the final year of its eight-year contract, also reported several recommendations this year that state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell said he will promptly put into effect. Particularly promising is the plan to collect and share sample lessons from the schools that have been mostsuccessful in helping foreign-born students achieve English proficiency.

In a way, the biggest warning flag from the annual evaluation also brings the greatest cause for optimism. Exit exam success rates have exceeded many low expectations because special efforts are now being focused on helping those students who are struggling the most. Superintendent O’Connell also promised more efforts to continue teaching the students who were ineligible to graduate with the class of 2006.

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