Sacramento -- Only a quarter of the
ninth-graders who took California's high school exit exam this year would pass the math
portion and fewer than half would pass the English section if state officials set the
passing score at 70 percent or better.
The state Board of Education is scheduled today
to decide what percentage of correct answers is needed to pass the eight-hour test -- a
new high school graduation requirement that starts with the class of 2004, today's ninth-
graders, who took the test in March.
Panels of educators that reviewed the test results have suggested that the Board of
Education use the traditional passing score of 70 percent. But results obtained by The
Chronicle show that most ninth-graders would fail the test if the passing score were 70
At that score, results show white and Asian students would pass at a far greater rate
than Latino and African American students.
A similar gap would exist between pupils in the state's best- and worst- performing
schools. In the top 20 percent of schools, 46 percent of pupils would pass the math
section. In the state's lowest performing schools, 1 percent would pass.
The results are "abysmal," said Assemblywoman Virginia Strom-Martin, D-
Duncans Mills, chairwoman of the lower house's education committee.
"It goes back to our most-challenging schools. They've got the least- qualified
teachers, the worst facilities, potentially the worst administration and probably a lack
of parental engagement. Is it any wonder they don't do as well?" said Strom-Martin,
who was briefed by the Education Department on the results.
Of the state's 480,000 ninth-graders, 390,000 took the test, which is said to be the
toughest of its kind in the nation.
The test results are likely to intensify a debate that began after Gov. Gray Davis made
the exit exam the centerpiece of his school reforms in 1999. This year's ninth-graders
were the first students to take the test, and they will be allowed to take the same test
once a year -- and, officials say, as many as three times in their senior year -- until
they pass. Without a passing grade, students cannot receive a high school diploma.
The test is supposed to measure how well students are responding to the state's new
math and English curriculum, but that curriculum has not been fully phased in at all
THREAT OF CLASS-ACTION SUITS
Critics have argued against allowing California's ninth-graders to take the test
because other states that have instituted exit exams have faced class- action lawsuits
from parents and civil rights groups that argued students were not given adequate notice
and were not being taught subjects for which they were tested.
Kerry Mazzoni, Davis' cabinet secretary for education, said the results reinforce the
Davis administration's support for the test.
"We shouldn't be afraid of this. The purpose of any test is to inform
decisions," Mazzoni said. "For too long, we've allowed kids to pass through this
system with very little in skills, and unfortunately, that has fallen most on children of
color. Now we have the information to target kids who need help the most."
Lawmakers familiar with the results say they were disturbed that white and Asian
students scored so much higher than black and Latino students.
Using a 70 percent passing score in math, 37 percent of whites would pass, 52 percent
of Asians and less than 10 percent of African American and Latino pupils.
The 70 percent mark in English would pass 66 percent of whites, 61 percent of Asians
and less than 30 percent of African Americans and Latinos.
Also, 73 percent of the students in the top-performing 20 percent of schools would pass
the English section, compared with only 15 percent of the pupils in the lowest-performing
"This reinforces our desire to try to address the so-called low-performing schools
in the state," said Sen. Jack O'Connell, D-San Luis Obispo, who earlier this year
carried a bill, defeated by Republicans, that would have postponed the date students must
pass the test by one year.
State schools chief Delaine Eastin declined to comment until the board acts today.
LOWER PASS-LEVEL PROJECTIONS
The Board of Education could set a lower pass level.
At 60 percent, for example, nearly two-thirds of ninth-graders would pass the English
portion of the test.
More than 80 percent of white students would pass English, 77 percent of Asians and
almost 50 percent of African Americans and Latinos with a 60 percent passing score.
Lowering the passing score to 50 percent in math would elevate the number of overall
students who pass to 50 percent.
Many educators say, however, that the Board of Education should not adopt a low
pass-fail threshold simply for the purpose of ensuring that more students pass the exam.
"How many people do they think should pass this exit exam at the beginning of high
school," asked Jim Burke of the California Association of Teachers of English and
head of Burlingame High School's English Department. "What are we going to have, Lake
Wobegon, where all of the children are above average at the beginning of high school? This
is not a minimum competency test. The whole concept behind standards is that you're
setting a goal to reach."
Chronicle staff writer Nanette Asimov contributed to this report. / E-mail Greg
Lucas at firstname.lastname@example.org.