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Exit exams raise tricky questions
High school tests unfair, some say
June 8, 2003
By June Kronholz

MIAMI - When the results of statewide tests were released in late May, high school senior Eric Lira had scored 286 on the reading exam - one point less than he needed to pass. That means that Lira, who is earning A's in advanced-placement calculus and honors physics this semester and has a 3.3 grade-point average, won't receive a diploma when his class graduates from Miami Senior High School on Thursday.

Without the diploma, Lira, who is 19 years old and arrived from Nicaragua three years ago speaking no English, won't be able to go to
college. "My future is broke. Everything. By one test," he said, dropping his face into his hands during an interview in his guidance counselor's office.

Lira is one of 67 seniors at Miami High, 4,800 in the Miami-Dade public schools and more than 13,000 across Florida who won't
receive diplomas this year because they haven't passed the state's graduation exams. The huge number of test failures this year - the first year the test is required for graduation - and the devastating consequences for teen-agers who will leave school without a diploma are turning into a political nightmare for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

But they're also becoming a test of nerve for other states that are phasing in new or tougher exit exams over the next few years.

Arizona has postponed the no-diploma consequences of its exit exam four times. California is likely to back off its plan to deny diplomas next year to anyone who fails its exit exam; it concluded that one in five California high school seniors wouldn't graduate. Alaska has put off its must-pass requirement by two years and rewritten the test to make it easier.

All that raises a tricky question for legislators and governors, who hoped that linking a diploma to a test would motivate students, improve schools and give employers confidence in the value of a diploma. But what happens when kids fail anyway?

Gov. Bush, who championed Florida's test, won't back down, says his press secretary, Alia Faraj. Floridians "should be celebrating" the state's rising test scores, she adds. Still, the governor quickly announced remedial classes, on-line tutoring and many more chances for youngsters to take the exam after leaving school.

The bulk of the seniors who failed the test are either black or English-learning Haitians and Hispanics, and black and Hispanic activists charge that the state's low per-pupil spending on education is the cause.

They're calling for a boycott of Florida citrus, sugar, amusement parks and the turnpike until Bush sets aside the test results.

"I can't fathom thousands of children walking around the state without a diploma and the governor being happy about that," says Frederica Wilson, a state senator and leader of the boycott.

Eighteen states now require high school students to pass a test to receive a diploma, says the Center on Education Policy, a Washington research group. But most of those exams are so easy that they have created few political tremors. Minnesota's exams test eighth-grade skills, and in Georgia, 94 percent of 11th-graders pass their English test on the first try, the center's Keith Gayler says.

Five or six years ago, states began writing new tests and linking them to what they want kids to learn, rather than to minimal skills. Within six years, 24 states that together enroll 70 percent of all high school students will have exit exams.

Florida rewrote its old exit exam in 1998 as part of a program to test all youngsters in grades three through 10, and the state links a diploma to passage of the 10th-grade test. Tenth-graders need a score of only 56 percent in reading and 59 percent in math to pass.

They have five chances between grades 10 and 12 to take the test, and English-language learners can use a dictionary. Florida's education department says that 91 percent of this year's seniors passed, including 84 percent of the black seniors and 87 percent of the Hispanics. (Lira, who had taken the test before, also can take it again but doesn't know if he'll do so.)

At Miami Norland Senior High, where 96 percent of the students are black, Principal Willie B. Turner says the test has made the school try harder, just as Florida hoped it would. When last year's scores put Norland on a failing-schools list, teachers singled out the lowest-scoring youngsters for remedial classes and tutoring.

Norland still scored below the state average this year, and about 40 of its 473 seniors won't get their diplomas because of failing test scores, Turner adds. But while 10th-grade scores have barely budged across the state since 2001, Norland's math and reading scores each rose by 10 points on the 500-point tests this year.

Miami school Superintendent Merrett Stierheim agrees that the test is improving learning across the state as schools beef up their curricula to help kids pass, but he has doubts about it just the same. To boost reading scores, Miami is shifting money out of writing programs, he says.

Two-thirds of Miami's students come from non-English speaking households, and for students like Miami High's Lira, leaving school without a diploma means "closing the door to life," Stierheim says.