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Students Fail Exam,
But Could Graduate

Natalia J. Garland

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Some students and parents in California sued the State over the high school exit exam. Judge Robert Freedman agreed that the exam was discriminatory against the poor and against those learning English as a second language: "There is evidence in the record that shows that students in economically challenged communities have not had an equal opportunity to learn the materials tested..." Apparently, he felt that the $20 million allocated for remedial studies had not been used appropriately. Governor Schwarzenegger will increase this amount to $70 million. It seems there were also issues with overcrowded classrooms and teachers without appropriate credentials.

Judge Freedman's decision will affect 46,768 high school seniors (the ruling will apply not only to the 10 plaintiffs but to all seniors who failed the exam). Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jack O'Connell, who helped to implement the exam as a measure of school accountability, wants to appeal the decision and this is supported by Governor Schwarzenegger. Although this is the first graduating class required to pass the exit exam, students have had multiple chances to take and pass the exam since their sophomore year. Apparently, some have failed multiple times.

Reportedly, the exam is not difficult. The levels tested are 10th-grade English, 9th-grade math, and "level-one" algebra. Students must get a minimal score of 60 percent in each section in order to pass. In fact, one of the plaintiff students has since passed the exit exam. This student and three others wanted to withdraw from the lawsuit. The remaining six students involved in the lawsuit have not been able to pass the English portion of the exam.

Judge Freedman's decision prompted me to think about the intertwining topics of education and discrimination. My responses are directed toward Judge Freedman, and not toward the students or parents involved in the lawsuit. For the purpose of this essay, I accept the students' and parents' concerns as genuine, but I question whether Judge Freedman's ruling will have a positive impact on these students.

(1) Judge Freedman seems to have concluded that the school system is to blame for these students' failures. Even if this is true, does it follow that these students should be given diplomas? If students are allowed to graduate without having met certain educational standards, will they be prepared for advanced training or college courses? One of the students involved in the lawsuit wants to become a medical assistant. Excellence in reading and writing English would seem to be a prerequisite for a medical career. If the exit exam is an accurate testing tool, and if the student (for whatever reasons) was not able to pass the exam, then career success is possibly jeopardized. Who will be to blame if this student fails to become a medical assistant?

(2) If students are given diplomas which they did not earn, then their future employers could be deceived as to their level of reading, writing, and arithmetic skills. An employer should be able to assume that a job applicant, presenting a California high school diploma, has achieved average grades or better. Not only is the young graduate being set up for possible failure, but the employer is being set up for wasted hours of orientation and training. The employer would be hiring, in reality, an employee who did not have a high school education. This would be an injustice.

(3) Although 46,768 students, or 10.7 percent of all California high school students, were not able to pass the English and math portions of the exit exam, there were 389,600 students who passed. Were any of the passing students from the same poor or non-English speaking background? Did any of the fluent or native English speaking students fail? In spite of any misuse of aid moneys, can it be proved or disproved that there is a direct connection between any such misuse and students' inability to pass the exit exam? Could there be other variables?

(4) Students had multiple chances to take and pass the exit exam. Did the students and their parents have any responsibility to ask for help? If students had already failed the exam, perhaps having failed more than once, should they have sought some sort of administrative intervention before their senior year? If they had the wherewithall to bring a lawsuit against the State of California, did they not have the ability to make their educational needs known earlier and in a manner that would have produced an earned diploma?

(5) Could similar discrimination cases be formed for students experiencing other problems? What about students whose parents are undergoing divorce, or students who have been sexually abused, or who are addicted to drugs, or who matured slowly and waited too late to take the exit exam seriously? Students who are being abused at home could have difficulty concentrating in school. Should there be special programs and funds for these students? If a sexually abused student fails, will anyone notice?

(6) If the failing students are given diplomas, what happens to our concept of standards? What happens to the feeling of personal pride? Will these students have confidence in themselves, knowing that their diplomas resulted from a court decision rather than personal achievement? If we care about these students, should we not continue to challenge and encourage them? Should we not expect them to perform as well as native English speakers? And to have all the benefits which can be derived from reading and writing fluent English in America, starting with a path out of their poor living conditions?

(7) Whether these students are immigrants or native-born Americans, it would seem logical that their parents are immigrants. There is likely a confusion between the meaning of discrimination and the meaning of hardship. I do not doubt that these students feel victimized. They are trying to get a high school education while also trying to learn to read and write English. This is a hardship. It means they might have to work harder, and maybe longer, than native speakers of English. It also means they will have a special advantage that many other students will lack--they will be bilingual, and they will have the potential to participate fully in more than one culture.

[NOTE: It is acknowledged that state exams are controversial among some educators. However, the California exam having been established, it is not the purpose of this essay to argue the legitimacy of the exam itself, but to question and examine the topics of education and discrimination as related to preparation for the exam and to the awarding of high school diplomas to those who failed the exam or portions thereof.] (Written 05/15/06) bibliography available.)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2006 Natalia J. Garland