California High School Exit Exam, graduation ceremony, Certificates of Completion, learning English, bilingual programs

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Feb. 18, 2006

High School Exit Exam doesn't tell the whole story

Sandra Nichols
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  Your child might even say, "Gee, that test is so-o-o-o easy! They really have low expectations for us!" That is often the perception of those whose native language is English, whose parents are college graduates, and whose income levels are adequate.

Along with the exaltation and hoopla for a majority of this year's high school seniors, in some homes there will be trauma, frustration and disappointment resulting from the California High School Exit Exam.

One student, David, was born in Mexico and attended school there until he was 15. He was brought to California when his father landed work here. David was an average student. He could read and write in Spanish at the proficient level, and he had adequate grades that indicate passing coursework in science, history, math and literature.

David began attending high school and learning English. English was no easier for him than learning French was for my sister. There was no one at home with whom to practice. No English-speaking role models reached out to him in friendship. He was courted by a gang, which he resisted.

David's family dreamed of the day he would be their first high school graduate. David will not be that graduate because he has been unable to learn enough English to demonstrate what he knows on the California High School Exit Exam.

Anita has always lived in California. Her family moved often, looking for work and affordable housing. Anita was flip-flopped between English-only and bilingual programs throughout her first six years of school, depending on what classes had available space to accommodate her mid-year entry. A child who goes back and forth between these programs, often becomes confused, unlike children in consistent, well thought-out programs, who experience a planned transition to English proficiency.

By the fifth grade, Anita's education was already problematic. She could barely read in either language, she couldn't write a coherent paragraph and more devastating was the fact that she was losing hope. Every time standardized testing came around — as it does all too often these days — she panicked. Her low test scores only reinforced her feelings of hopelessness.

When a child falls so far behind in school in the early years, it is extraordinarily difficult — often impossible — to catch up. Anita received extra assistance at school through various programs, and with that assistance and her own determination, she managed to pass her classes. However, passing the exit exam was impossible.

Perhaps you noticed that my examples have common threads, poverty, limited English skills, and parents whose own educational careers were short and ineffective. That combination is difficult to overcome. Yet our California public schools are working so hard and doing so well that most of these children actually do catch up, become proficient in English, and pass the exam.

Now, the high school exit exam is fairly easy to pass under some circumstances. If you're reading this column, your child probably would pass with ease. Your child might even say, "Gee, that test is so-o-o-o easy! They really have low expectations for us!" That is often the perception of those whose native language is English, whose parents are college graduates, and whose income levels are adequate.

Just because our children will graduate from high school with ease, does not mean that other dedicated students will sail through with the same ease.

Some argue that a diploma must "mean something." I agree. It should show readiness for entry into the work force or college.

Nearly three years ago, I wrote "A win-win for the high school exit exam," an editorial that first appeared in the Pajaronian and was later published in a college textbook. I advocated a two-tiered diploma structure, one that signified passage of the exit exam and one that didn't. That became a reality in some districts, including ours. But that won't apply this year. In 2006, diplomas will hinge on exit exam passage, with a temporary reprieve granted only for special education students who meet specific criteria.

Under consideration at this time is the granting of Certificates of Completion to students who meet all graduation requirements except the exit exam. Also under consideration is including these students in the cap and gown ceremonies. I believe granting both privileges is the least we can do for these students.

At a time when half of California students that enter high school never finish, meeting four years worth of graduation requirements is an worthwhile achievement. After all, overcoming learning difficulties and language hardships with perseverance and determination demonstrates important character traits that are desirable to employers and to a society. These are character traits that no exit exam can measure.

Sandra Nichols is a Speech and Language Specialist for Santa Cruz City Schools, the Vice-President of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Governing Board, and the Coordinator of Special Education for Spreckels Union School District in Monterey County. Her opinions are not necessarily those of any school district.

© Sandra Nichols 2001 - 2006


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