It's 8:45 a.m. and in a lukewarm portable classroom at Crawford High School in City Heights, 20 students fend off drowsiness. They've been here for almost an hour and there's another 45 minutes to go before they can step out into some fresh air.
For an hour and a half every day for six weeks, they've been preparing for something that's not going to happen, at least not while they're students at Crawford.
Up until June 13, it looked as though each student in that classroom would need to pass the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) in order to earn a high school diploma. And, up until June 13, none of them had. On that day, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell announced that, pending a vote by the State Board of Education on July 9, he's recommending implementation of the exam be delayed for two years.
Prior to O'Connell's announcement, it was the class of 2004 that would have to pass the exit exam to graduate. Even if a student passed one part of the two-part exam, but failed the other, she'd leave high school with a certificate of completion, rather than an official diploma, signifying that she'd taken all the required classes but couldn't quite make it through the final hoop. Now it looks like it'll be the class of 2006, this year's incoming 10th graders, who'll start the thrice-yearly testing process, beginning in March 2004. From that point, they'll have seven chances to pass both sections of the test.
The CAHSEE is a 12-hour-long exam spanning three days that tests students on tenth-grade-level reading comprehension, grammar and writing. The math portion of the test covers skills up to Algebra I, a course only recently added as a graduation requirement in many districts throughout the state. To pass the math portion of the exam, the student must get roughly 55 percent of the questions correct. For the English/language arts section of the test, approximately 60 percent of a student's answers must be correct.
It was O'Connell who authored the legislation creating California's high school exit exam in 1999 amid a nationwide push to hold school systems to that nebulous 'A' word that's become synonymous with public education accountability. And while a recent study by an independent research group showed that the test's specter has prompted some sub-par schools to get their acts together, largely the exit exam has incited frustration among groups whose population is least likely to skate through the exam. Locally, the Latino Education Coalition and the San Diego chapter of the Black American Political Association of California (BAPAC) have spoken out against the test.
Statewide, the test has highlighted the sad disparity between the 'have' schools and the 'have-nots.' La Jolla High School, for example, can confidently claim a 93 percent pass rate. Hoover High School in City Heights, on the other hand, could lose almost half its graduating class should the state board say no to O'Connell's delay. Overall a little more than one-third of San Diego City Schools class of 2004, or 3,100 students, have either not passed the test or have yet to take it.
When O'Connell made his June 13 announcement, the San Diego Unified School District gave principals the option of canceling this summer's CAHSEE prep class since, as O'Connell indicated, the next offering of the exam wouldn't be until March 2004, nine months from now. The district does, however, plan to offer CAHSEE prep classes as electives beginning this fall.
Debra Holman-Brown, Crawford's head counselor, who also serves as summer school principal, passed that option on to the 50 or so students who had signed up to take the language arts prep class. The kids, mostly eleventh graders, were told that it was likely the exit exam would be postponed until they were well out of high school, but they had the option to take the prep class for elective credit.
'This is summer and they don't need to be here,' Holman-Brown said, '[but] the students decided they wanted to go ahead with the class anyhow.'
The students, mostly English-language learners, realized they could use the practice, and, as Holman-Brown explained, they seemed to have caught on to the standardized test machine that drives public education: 'We want to learn how to take tests,' she said they told her.'When you give kids the option to improve, these are the select few.'
For teacher Terry Walsh, each student's CAHSEE test provided her with a roadmap for what that student needed to work on. The first day of class I sat down with each student and told them, 'Here are your scores; here's what you need to work on.'
The class, it turns out, is not nearly as dull as one might expect from a standardized test prep course, in other words, there seems to be more going on than teaching to the test. Teacher Terry Walsh begins each 90-minute class period with a silent reading segment. The students follow that up with journal writing and then a vocabulary exercise. When that's through, they delve into a 43-page CAHSEE Language Arts study guide.
'Dear Student,' the first page of the packet reads, “[t]his book has been written just for you. You will be required to pass the California High School Exit Exam in order to receive a high school diploma, and we want to make sure you do. Although you will have many opportunities to take the test, wouldn't it be great if you could pass this year?'
It's a transparent motivational statement, no doubt, but that carrot is no longer dangling. In fact, one survey of teachers throughout California expressed fear that students would lose motivation should the test be cancelled or postponed. 'Students need to have that goal in front of them,' one teacher is quoted. 'Do not pull the rug out from the whole program [by delaying the test].'
At one point during the class, after Walsh asks students to go through a literary passage in the prep packet and identify words they don't understand, a case of morning summer school restlessness sets in.
'I know this gets a little boring and repetitious,' Walsh says, 'but these strategies are going to help you to! what?'
'Learn from our mistakes,' says a young man lounging on one of the classroom's three sofas.
'Learn to do better on essays?' says another student.
'Learn more?' asks a third.
'Why,' Walsh prods them.
'To improve,' someone says.
'Improve what?' she asks, but finally doles out the answer. 'Testing skills. Testing strategies.'
State Department of Education spokesperson Rick Miller estimates that the exit exam costs the state $1.3 million to $1.7 million each time it's administered, or roughly $5 million annually. Bob Raines, the San Diego school district's head of testing, estimates that the district pitches in an additional $80,000 each year for testing materials and each school site might spend upwards of $2,000 to rent extra tables and folding chairs to accommodate students taking the test. The state budget crisis, which has hit education hard (40 percent of the state's annual budget goes to schools) has also been mentioned as an impetus for postponing the exit exam.
However, the No. 1 reason for delaying the exam, said Miller, is 'the fact we legitimately felt these kids had not had proper preparation.' The 2002 cumulative CAHSEE results show that out of 248,328 students tested, 68 percent failed to pass the math portion of the test and 56 percent failed to pass the English/language arts portion. Talk of legal action from angry parents claiming their children were unfairly denied a diploma was definitely a concern, said Miller, but it was not a factor in the decision to delay the test. While community colleges will accept students without a high school diploma, the California State University system has said it would not admit students who fail to pass the exit exam.
Several states, including Massachusetts, Nevada, North Carolina and Texas have already implemented an exit exam requirement that's proven rather devastating for many students. Not only are a disproportionate number of Black, Latino and socio-economically disadvantaged students failing the test, so too are college-bound suburban kids who simply don't test well.
As the Washington Post reported in May, for states that have already implemented the test as a graduation requirement, it's not unusual to find quite a few students with solid B-averages and college scholarships who've used up all their chances and are now forced to rethink their futures. In Massachusetts where students have five chances to pass the test, recently a class-action lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of the state's Black and Latino students, 50 percent and 44 percent of whom, respectively, failed to pass the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) by their fifth attempt.
In California, students have seven chances to pass the exam before they complete classes, then two last chances after the school year. Testing is held during the school day and each session pulls the student out of class for four hours a day, three days in a row.
Last September, the San Diego City Schools Board of Education approved a waiver program that would allow special-education students who complete their coursework but fail to pass the CAHSEE to nevertheless receive a diploma-a significant move since the pass rate for those students is well under 30 percent even with modifications such as extra time to take the test.
A 2001 amendment to the state education code demanded that before the CAHSEE could be officially implemented, an independent study needed to be done to determine whether the test was fair and adequate. The Legislature set a May 1, 2003 deadline for the study and awarded a contract to the Human Resources Research Organization in McLean, Va.-a state, incidentally, that has yet to implement its own exit exam.
Researchers visited a sampling of 300 of the California's 1,843 public high schools as well as 173 middle schools. What the study found were pretty much the same factors that have resulted in California's abysmal national ranking in public education. While the CAHSEE test itself is a valid form of assessment, the study declared, it's only been recently that the majority of schools were sufficiently teaching students the test's basic concepts. By examining curriculum and textbooks, the study estimated that in 1999, the year the idea of the CAHSEE was made public, only 20 percent of all public high schools were teaching 75 percent or more of the skills required to pass the test. That fact was reflected in early test scores. Passing rates for schools that had been teaching math standards all along were nearly 100 percent while the schools that lagged saw only a 22-percent passing rate.
Ultimately, the study concluded, the class of 2004 hasn't been prepared well enough to be held accountable to the test's content. There's 'considerable hope' for the class of 2005, the study notes, and the class of 2006 and beyond should perform even better if there's enough funding for necessary remedial courses. The report also recommends alternative forms of assessment for students who struggle with testing, such as a comprehensive portfolio of a student's schoolwork.
Mshinda Nyofu, who heads the San Diego chapter of the Black American Political Association of California (BAPAC), says he plans to fly to Sacramento July 9 for the state Board of Education meeting to support the study's finding and Supt. O'Connell's recommendation to delay the test. In a letter to the San Diego Union-Tribune, which has taken an ardent editorial stance in favor of implementing the exit exam in 2004, Nyofu writes: 'I believe that the public school system in California must be reformed. However, it is misleading to make people believe that inclusion of 'high stakes' testing and exams like the CAHSEE will now negate years of willful and systematic neglect of disadvantaged students.'
The Union-Tribune did not publish Nyofu's letter.
Crawford's Debra Holman-Brown, who was responsible for administering the CAHSEE at that campus ('massive and time consuming' is how she described it), says she's relieved the test will likely be postponed. She's already seen a few students from the class of 2004 rush to cram in all their required classes so they could graduate a year early, “because they knew they wouldn't pass the test,' she said.
'We are all looked at by our ability to test well,' is what Holman-Brown has had to explain to her students. 'Till we go to portfolio assessment, you have to be able to show your ability not only in day-to-day work but on a one-time test.'
In the end, she said, 'test scores and percentages do not reflect effort.' Crawford, like other inner-city schools, has a high turnover rate since a majority of families in the area rent rather than own. There's also the large immigrant population that keeps the school diverse though academically challenged.
'But,' says Holman-Brown, 'we keep plugging away.'