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Mired in controversy, California’s high school
exit exam confounds both teachers and students

By Brandon Bridges


SOUTH GATE - Sara Garcia is working through lunch. Instead of eating, she is tutoring, testing and grading homework. Garcia, a special education teacher at South East High School, buzzes around the room attending to the various needs of her students.


Santiago Martinez is one of her students preparing for the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE). He calls her over excitedly, “Ms. Garcia, I have the answer…never mind, I thought I had it- but it’s wrong.”


After doing this four or five times, he gets up angrily from his desk and declares, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” Santiago has been studying with Garcia every other day for a month, but he still is not able to pass the practice exam.


Unfortunately, he joins a disproportionately large number of special needs students who will likely not pass the high school exit exam this year because of legislative changes effective December 31, which eliminate the exemption option most special needs students previously used to pass the exam and receive their high school diploma.


Under the current system, students with physical, mental or learning disabilities who fail to pass are able to apply through their district office for exemption from the CAHSEE if they demonstrate that they have gone through the necessary measures, such as the CAHSEE prep course, to prepare for the exam. This allows these students to graduate with their diploma, instead of a certificate of completion, which is needed for entry into college and most employment.



Language barrier an issue


The exemption rule, which Garcia said about one in three special education students used last year to attain their diploma, is the result of a 2001 class action lawsuit -- Chapman v. California Department of Education, et al. – filed by Disability Rights Advocates in Alameda County in northern California. The lawsuit charges that the state’s nine-year-old high school exit exam discriminates against students with special needs because it doesn’t provide an alternate test for them.


The result was Senate Bill 586 by Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, providing the exemption option. Gov. Schwarzenegger initially vetoed the legislation, saying the bill would send “the wrong message to the over 650,000 special education students in our state, the majority of which have the ability to pass the (California High School Exit Exam.)” But in 2005, a temporary settlement was reached allowing the exemption option.


Even with the exemption, Sara Garcia is among the many special education teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) that says the governor’s position is misguided. Not all special ed students, she says, can pass the exam. “Special needs students need to be held to high standards, but the current system sets them up for failure,” she said. Garcia said of her current case load of 15 students, 10 of them will likely only receive certificates of completion as opposed to diplomas.


“These kids will be so disheartened because they tried and failed, and it really affects their self-image and the viewpoint of their chance for future success,” she said.


Part of the problem with the current system, Garcia said, is that many special needs students in LAUSD are English Language Learners (ELL). In Garcia’s classroom, three-fourths of her 15 students are native Spanish speakers. In LAUSD there are nearly 270,000 ELL students, nearly half of the school district’s total enrollment of 694,000. Garcia said the language barrier is often compounded by their learning disability, which in turn makes it much more difficult to comprehend test material.


“In terms of test material, it’s kind of which came first- the chicken or the egg? We don’t know which set of circumstances makes testing worse, but their ability to take tests is negatively impacted by both” their language barriers and their learning disabilities, she said.


As a result, Garcia said she spends a large amount of classroom time focusing on test materials. “The amount of flexibility in a typical class period is greatly reduced when you have to teach through the standardized curriculum on the exams,” she said.


Gisele Ragusa, a professor at the USC Rossier School of Education, said that the pervasive culture of high-stakes testing is detrimental to special needs students because standardized curricula do not address the unique needs of disabled students. “It is not fair to these students, as they have needs that extend beyond the scope of these assessments,” Ragusa said.


A flawed test?


Garcia agreed, saying that the spectrum of aptitudes and talents of special needs students is much broader than that of a general education classroom.


“Some of my kids are visually disabled and as a result can’t read well, but their computation skills might be heightened and perform very well mathematically. There is a lot of variation in special education classrooms, and teaching through test materials isn’t always the most effective way to reach students,” Garcia said.


Nor does the high school exit exam make the necessary accommodations for students. “A lot of times, students with visual and auditory processing disorders can’t demonstrate their proficiency in a subject area on a pencil and paper test,” said Wes Farrow, special education teacher at Locke High School in South Los Angeles. “While the ability of students with visual processing disorders to read questions is hindered, if you were to read the questions


they could answer them correctly.”


Farrow’s observations fly in the face of Schwarzenegger’s assertion that most of the state’s disabled students can pass the California assessment exam. While some accommodations are allowed -- such as calculators, dictionaries or additional time -- students who use these must first apply for a waiver to use them.


If a student’s individualized education plan notes a specific disorder, he or she is generally allowed the use of one or more accommodations. For example, if a student has a visual processing disorder, they are allowed additional time on the reading comprehension section.


But Farrow said that the accommodations do not go far enough to address the CAHSEE’s shortcomings. Further, he said that many parents do not have the time and skill to navigate the paperwork and bureaucracy of LAUSD to attain the waiver.


Farrow said that the best solution for special needs students was to have a separate test. But Anthony Sotelo, head of the California Department of Education’s Advisory Commission on Special Education (ACSE), said Farrow’s solution is not in the best interest of disabled students.


The state’s special education commission consists of appointed of the governor, other elected officials from the California Assemble, special education teachers, parents and even persons with disabilities.


Searching for solutions


Sotelo said the commission has studied the issue at length. Schools that make adequate yearly progress on the No Child Left Behind exam have been found to still have a 40 to 50 point disparity between non-disabled students and disabled ones on the high school exit exam, he said said.


“Kids are going to the same school with the same faculty, and yet they aren’t getting the same quality of education,” Sotelo said. “Special needs students are supposed to be getting extra support yet they still aren’t making the grade. It’s an equality issue, a different test indicates there’s a different set of standards. And when the standards are lower, students don’t receive the same overall quality of education.”


Sotelo said these students aren’t receiving the necessary support because the exemption allows for lower expectations. “They aren’t receiving the same rigorous academic preparation and that’s the main reason for the achievement gap,” he said.


Sotelo said phasing out the exemption option is not intended to fail more students. , but to raise the bar for disabled students. “Public policy is often trial-and-error, we have to find a balance over time,” he said. But he admits that there is “a very real possibility” that there will be a drastic decrease in the number of disabled students who will fail the exam and will not receive high school diplomas this year. Sotelo said that the state special education commission will examine the numbers in May and determine what what reforms will alleviate the problem.


“While the numbers might be drastic this year, the target is for three or four years down the road that there is little difference between the graduation rates. If that isn’t the case, we may have to go back to the drawing board,” Sotelo said. Sara Garcia worries that her fifteen students graduating in May don’t have the luxury of waiting for the ACSE to “go back to the drawing board. My students need a viable solution now,” she said. The exemption option is only in place to give school districts additional time to put programs in place that help special education students pass the exit test, Garcia said.


And LAUSD has been able to do neither for its 65,000 special needs students, Garcia said, “We haven’t found an effective way to prepare them for the test, and now we can’t provide them a suitable alternative.” So Garcia spends every free minute she has each day, during lunch, after school, sometimes even before school, working with students like Santiago Martinez. Her concern for them goes beyond black and white, beyond test scores and number of questions right and wrong.


“I see the disappointment and anguish in their eyes when they struggle through the material only not to pass. It’s as much hell for me as it is for them. The most I can do is show some empathy, so they don’t have to be afraid to be wrong. I hope their learning as much about discipline, courage and strength as they are verbal and mathematic skills.”




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