High school exit exam challenges

Gabriela Avendano, 18, talks about the California High School

– Gabriela Avendano, Selida Banuelos, Artemio Arteaga and Meg
Perkins are like most other high schoolers. They show up for class,
they play sports, they join clubs and they want to go to college.
They dream about the future, even if they’re not sure what they
want to do.
GILROY – Gabriela Avendano, Selida Banuelos, Artemio Arteaga and Meg Perkins are like most other high schoolers. They show up for class, they play sports, they join clubs and they want to go to college. They dream about the future, even if they’re not sure what they want to do.

But the harsh reality is, they’re not like other high schoolers – at least not like the ones who graduate before June 2004.

The four Gilroy High School students are part of a new generation of students in California – one that will have to earn diplomas by passing the math and English sections of the California High School Exit Exam. If students do not pass, they don’t graduate – no matter how good their grades are, no matter how well they’ve done on other standardized exams.

Avendano, 18, and Banuelos, 16, are part of the Gilroy High School Class of 2004, the first set of high school students to be impacted by the exam. If the Class of 2004 were graduating from high school this year, more than half of them would not be receiving diplomas, according to results from tests taken last year.

“When I think about classes that didn’t have to take the test, I guess it’s kind of unfair,” Banuelos said. “But I do take math a little more seriously now.”

Perkins, a 15-year-old sophomore who took the test for the first time this year and is awaiting her results, agreed.

“If you’re struggling with (a subject), now you have to work harder,” Perkins said. “It’s not just about a grade.”

These four students, who like other GHS juniors and sophomores took the exit exam in March, will get their latest results in a few weeks. If they pass, the students can move out of the intervention and tutorial courses they take now. If they don’t pass, the students can tick off one more of their total seven opportunities to pass the crucial exam.

Why students fail

Reasons students have not yet passed the exam are as varied as the students themselves are diverse.

In theory, any student at the end of their 10th grade year should be able to pass the exit exam. On the math portion, skills the state requires to be taught from sixth grade through Algebra I are tested. For the English section, reading and writing skills taught through 10th grade are on the exam.

But certain obstacles transcend theory.

For Avendano, who moved to the United States from Mexico two years ago, a language barrier is one obvious factor. The exit exam is administered only in English, including the test’s math section.

“I passed the math test, but I’ve taken the English section several times and still haven’t passed,” Avendano, a Spanish-speaker, said through an interpreter. “I feel I can understand English pretty well, but writing it and then reading and speaking it is more difficult.”

Things are different for Banuelos, who speaks English fluently but also has Spanish-speaking parents. Banuelos has passed the English section, but has not yet passed the math portion.

“I figure that she needs more time to study and learn more math. When she is home she has no one who can help her with her math homework,” said Maria Banuelos, Selida’s mother.

The Banuelos family moved to the United States from Mexico in 1988 and sent for Selida two years later. Neither of Selida’s parents went to school in Mexico past the third grade.

Maria Banuelos does not blame Gilroy High School for her daughter’s inability to pass the math section of the exam.

“The school is definitely doing everything they can to help,” Maria Banuelos said.

This year GHS has increased the amount of intervention classes and tutoring given to students who haven’t passed the exit exam, adding Saturday and summer session exit exam classes. In math, for instance, roughly 300 students are taking a course specifically designed to pass the exit exam.

The district also plans to move from its tone of recommending intervention courses to requiring these types of classes to be taken before moving on to higher level subjects.

“To the extent we can, we’re going to require these classes to be taken,” Diaz said.

How students feel about the test

All the ado by lawmakers and educators regarding the exit exam over the years does not seem to be matched by students themselves.

“…It’s not like people are talking about it at break or lunch,” Perkins said.

Weekend plans and the latest fads occupy more talk time, at least for now.

Perkins, identified as a gifted student back in her elementary school years, could be considered a lock to pass the exit exam on her first try. An A and B student, Perkins still was placed into a special course earlier this year to fill gaps that potentially arose in her math skills when the district shifted from math courses with integrated curriculums to math classes focused on a specific discipline such as algebra or geometry.

“Sometimes I think there is a disconnect between reality and what kids expect to happen,” Superintendent Edwin Diaz said. “It’s critical to do whatever we can to create a sense of urgency among students and parents.”

For Arteaga, a 15-year-old sophomore, the help he’s receiving from teachers is making him confident he’ll pass the exam sooner than later.

“I have two more years to pass it. If I don’t pass it now, I’ll just keep studying hard and pass it next year,” Arteaga said. “I don’t think it’s unfair we have to do this to get a diploma. It will help us get better jobs.”

New laws coming from Sacramento?

Lawmakers and education officials have made much fuss about the exit exam since it was made law in 1999. In fact, there is a movement afloat in the state legislature to let districts decide how they would use results from the test. In other words, if a district did not want to make passing the exam necessary for a diploma, it wouldn’t have to.

GUSD officials have not said they would waive the requirement, but they have expressed support for granting some leeway to special education students and children not fluent in English.

Legislation passed in 2001 requires the State Board of Education to study whether regular instruction is meeting the requirements of such a high-stakes test. The final report of the study is due May 1 and could be a major factor in a decision the state school board must make in August pushing the 2004 deadline back another year.

Trustee TJ Owens has expressed hesitancy when it comes to giving more local control over a state exam.

“But I like the idea of taking into account students with disadvantages or learning disabilities. Right now, what are they supposed to do if they don’t have a diploma?” he asked.

The power of a diploma

Owens asks a logical question. And while receiving a high school diploma clearly gives young adults more options, having that piece of paper is not as crucial as some may think.

A student without a high school diploma has several options to further their education and land decent paying jobs. Just ask Realtor Chris Ordaz of Coldwell Banker.

“It’s more important to not have a criminal record (than to have a high school diploma) when you go into real estate,” Ordaz said.

The state of California does not require a high school diploma to take real estate license classes. The state can, however, bar convicts from getting a license.

“I don’t really even ask about high school when I interview people. I’m interested in their desire to learn the business and whether they have a license,” Ordaz said.

A student without a diploma can also earn a bachelor’s degree if they’re so inclined.

“It may take a little longer, but it’s certainly possible,” said Joy Parker, director of admissions and records for Gavilan College.

Four-year schools accept community college transfer students regularly. And, a high school diploma is not a prerequisite to enter junior college and begin the transfer process.

“You need to be 18 years old or older,” Parker said. “I’d assume a student who didn’t pass the high school exit exam will need to do some pre-college level courses before they take transferable ones, but eventually they could take the courses the need to get into a four-year school.”