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Friday, September 23, 2005 | Students, teachers, parents and activists gathered Thursday outside Gov. Schwarzenegger’s office on Front Street in downtown San Diego to protest the California High School Exit Exam and to urge him to sign Assembly Bill 1531.
The bill, according to Californians For Justice, would allow school districts to form their own, more detailed systems of assessment to decide whether students have earned their diploma.
Chanting slogans and waving hand-painted banners, the group sought to bring attention to a cause they feel highlights the social and linguistic injustice of the county’s school system.
They presented a petition signed by 1,097 students and educators that urges Schwarzenegger to sign Assembly Bill 1531.
Representatives of the NAACP and Californians For Justice, a statewide, grassroots organization that champions community causes, outlined their goals in passionate speeches.
Currently, students must pass the exit exam to get a diploma, and activists demonstrating Thursday said that test is grossly unfair to Latino and other minority students.
“The exit exam is culturally and linguistically biased,” said Mshinda Nyofu, the parent of a fourth-grader who is enrolled in a San Diego City School.
Referring to a recent court decision known as the Williams Case – a class-action lawsuit filed in San Francisco in 2000 that Nyofu said proved that local schools offer sub-standard education – Nyofu explained why he thinks the exit exam is biased.
“If you have all of that (poor education) in one scenario, and then you’re mandating a high-stakes test for students to pass, who have not been adequately taught,” said Nyofu, “who have not had highly qualified teachers, who have not had the resources and textbooks that they need, then it’s go-for-broke if they pass or if they fail.”
As an alternative to the exit exam, supporters of Assembly Bill 1531 argue for an approach to assessment known as “multiple assessment.”
That would allow schools to assess outgoing students based not on their linguistic ability or their ability to pass an exit exam, but by a range of criteria.
“Our children are not robots,” said San Diego School Board Member Sheila Jackson. “Therefore, we need to be able to assess them in the best way possible, and evaluate their productivity in the best way possible. That might not be a test on a certain day.”
Then again, it might be.
Many educators argue in favor of the exit exams, saying that they are the only means of assessment that are truly fair to all students.
San Diego School Board Member Mitz Lee said she supports the exit exam for a number of reasons. She said the exams San Diego has now actually favor students of color and are beneficial to black, Latino and Asian students.
“Personally, I think [the exit exams] are helping because it means that at least students have to have the basics in reading and math,” said Lee. “I think it’s very critical, and it’s more critical for children of color for whom the system consistently has a low expectation. It makes them accountable.”
Lee argued that the exam has only been mandatory for a short period of time, and said that changing tactics now would make the school board look “like we don’t mean business.”
For Jackson, that’s an over-simplification. She illustrated the problem as she sees it using the analogy of a child learning to walk. It’s a lesson she teaches her fourth-grade class.
“The first time you tried you didn’t walk. You stood up, you fell down, you bust your lip, you cried a little bit,” she said. “But you kept getting up until you could walk. Everyone didn’t start to walk at the same time.”
In the same way, she said, each student should be assessed according to his or her strengths rather than by a mandated assessment test that only covers one part of the spectrum of a child’s learning.
The message of the students gathered outside Schwarzenegger’s office was clear. They feel the system as it is presents an unfair and biased challenge to students from ethnic minorities.
That’s something they planned to tell the whole world about if they could, but on Thursday afternoon they settled for rush hour on Front Street.
Please contact Will Carless directly at