Blaming the Victims

Editor's Note: John Rogers is Associate Director of the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access (IDEA), a research center at UCLA that examines key policy issues affecting equity and access within California's educational system. He spoke with Carolyn Goossen, education writer for NCM, about why IDEA opposes the High School Exit Exam and the consequences it may have for students learning English and minority students.

Q: Why are African-American and Latino kids failing the High School Exit Exam in larger numbers than other groups?

A: African-American and Latino students are far more likely than any other group in the state to attend schools that lack qualified teachers, space and instructional materials. Take, for example, the eight high schools in South Los Angeles. More than 99 percent of the students in those high schools are African-American or Latino. More than one-third of the teachers at these schools lack a full teaching credential. Two-thirds of the math teachers are not credentialed to teach math. Because most of these schools are dramatically overcrowded, they use a year-round calendar that provides students with 17 days fewer instruction each year than other high schools in the state. And, students attending these high schools came from South Los Angeles middle schools with similar shortages of qualified teachers and overcrowding.

Q: Statistics say that 85 percent of English learners in this state are Latino students. Does this also have an impact on the results?

A: Yes, many of the Latino students who have not yet passed the exit exam are recent immigrants still learning English. Their inability to pass the exam is often a function of their taking a test in a language that they don't yet fully understand. Latinos who are fluent in English have far higher pass rates.

Q: Many see the exit exam as a way to ensure that a high school diploma means something, and that students who graduate have at least basic English and math skills. Shouldn't we have something like the exam to make sure all students have these basic skills?

A: If we want to ensure that all students can demonstrate basic skills, we need to provide all students with access to quality instruction. More fundamentally, I would argue that basic skills are not enough. What parent would be satisfied with basic academic competence as a goal? Our high school diploma should mean young people are prepared for successful futures, which requires greater investment in our schools.

Q: Some say we need the exit exam in order to measure student performance. Do you agree?

A: The exit exam results provide some useful additional information about student performance in particular schools, but we can learn from student test scores without denying students a diploma.

Q: What kind of impact do you think this exit exam will have on students and schools in the near future?

A: It will be extremely demoralizing for young people who have survived poor school conditions for many years to be denied a diploma at the end of 12th grade. There will be a lot of anger. My hope is that young people will channel this anger into political action to change the system.

Q: How have communities who feel the exam is unfair begun to channel some of this anger?

A: Young people and parents in grassroots organizations around the state have rallied against the exit exam and in favor of better learning conditions at their schools. What is striking about this activism -- and the related organizing in Los Angeles to ensure all schools provide a college preparatory curriculum -- is that students are taking action because they believe in the importance of education. Young people from organizations like Californians for Justice and the Coalition for Educational Justice want a quality education and they want it now.

Q: Do you think high stakes standardized tests are ever needed in our public school system? What about non-high stakes standardized tests?

A: Tests and assessments of all sorts are critically important. They can provide educators, students, and parents with valuable information about what students are learning. I am not against high-stakes tests. I am opposed to putting all the pressure on the backs of young people -- particularly when it is adults at the head of the system who have failed to provide a quality education to all.

Q: On Sept. 30, the Human Resources Research Organization -- an independent evaluator of the Exit Exam -- released the exit exam passage rates. What did the results show? And what does it mean for different groups of immigrant students?

A: This recent report confirms what we have been saying for several months: that around 100,000 students in the Class of 2006 are at risk of not graduating this spring because they have yet to pass the exit exam. The vast majority of these students are: 1) special education students; 2) immigrant students still learning English; and 3) African-American and Latino students attending schools with substandard conditions.

Denying these students diplomas will undermine the ability of many young people to move on to successful futures and will generate cynicism among young people who have not been given a fair chance to succeed. It is not too late to avoid these outcomes. California still has time to follow the report's recommendations and to create options for students who have not yet passed the exit exam.

Q: What kinds of options did the report recommend?

A: It suggested on that districts could grant students diplomas if the students successfully completed a summer program. Options such as this offer a way for the state to avoid the calamity of having perhaps 100,000 students denied a diploma.

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