Tuesday, October 25, 2005 | Twenty million dollars is a serious chunk of change that can buy a great deal by almost anyone’s standards. But can it buy success on the California High School Exit Exam for thousands of students across the state?

Under a state law that takes effect for the class of 2006, this year’s seniors who cannot pass the CAHSEE will not receive a high school diploma, even though they attended school and may have received passing grades in their classes.

Faced with a potential catastrophe next June if thousands of students are unable to graduate, the California Department of Education is looking at ways to help the approximately 58,800 high school seniors statewide – about 12 percent of the state’s total number of 12th-graders – who have not yet passed the CAHSEE.

To help struggling students achieve their diplomas, the state’s Budget Act for 2005-2006 authorized $20 million to provide intensive instruction and services for seniors who are required to pass the CAHSEE but have failed one or both parts of the exam, according to the CDE.

Assembly Bill 128, signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Sept. 14, allows the CDE to allocate $600 per eligible student to schools to provide these services. School districts were informed by the CDE last month of the availability of this money and are required to submit specific data on student eligibility to the state to receive the funding.

The CDE will then rank school districts from highest to lowest, based upon which have the greatest percentage of students who have not been able to pass the CAHSEE. The money will be awarded first to those with the greatest percentage of failing students and will continue to be doled out until the funds have been exhausted.

At the San Diego Unified School District’s board of education meeting yesterday, trustees were expected to review details of this grant application for their approximately 2,000 seniors who have not yet passed the CAHSEE. If, compared to other districts throughout the state, SDUSD’s percentage of students who have not passed is high, which is bad, it will ensure that the state pays the money, which is good.

But if a district has a low number of students as a percent of its total enrollment who have failed the CAHSEE, which is good, chances are they won’t see a dime from the state, which is bad.

Alternative assessments rejected

And at SDUSD, where there are 8,424 seniors, 84 percent have passed the language arts portion and 80 percent have passed the math portion, according to the district’s class of 2006 CAHSEE Status Report

Students must pass both the math and language arts portions of the CAHSEE to receive a diploma. Of the county’s approximately 3,600 seniors who have not yet passed one or both portions of the high-stakes exam, more than half are SDUSD students.

The disturbing spectacle of thousands of high school seniors denied diplomas this June because of their inability to pass the CAHSEE becomes increasingly likely, now that the governor has vetoed Assembly Bill 1531, which would have provided looser, alternative ways to assess achievement for those students who have failed the CAHSEE.

AB-1531, first introduced on Feb. 22 and approved 41-35 by the state assembly Sept. 8, would have allowed school districts to develop multiple assessments to replace the state’s CAHSEE, to prove that students have mastered the state’s academic standards and deserve a diploma.

Although AB-1531 had support from a number of organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Californians for Justice, United Teachers Los Angeles and many groups representing special education students, the bill was widely criticized and dismissed by many educators from a variety of political perspectives who said it would erode high standards for student achievement.

The governor explained his position after vetoing the bill on Oct. 7: “This bill would undermine the existing California High School Exit Examination, weaken the ability of the state to establish minimum standards for high school diplomas, and diminish ongoing efforts to ensure that these students are receiving the assistance they deserve to successfully complete the exit exam. Under current law, students already have up to six different opportunities to pass the exit exam. Allowing school districts to offer alternative assessments at this time sends the wrong message to students, parents, teachers and administrators that we do not expect students to achieve at the highest levels.”

The governor wrote that the public should not have low expectations of students and that “state resources should continue to be focused on helping students prepare for the exam, rather than developing alternative assessments.”

No greater priority

To provide state money to each of those 58,800 students, out of a pot of $20 million, would have reduced the per-person amount to only $340. So maybe that’s not enough money to make a difference. But is $600 enough to provide the extensive support necessary to help these seniors pass the test? Is $6,000?

Look for schools in coming months to concentrate serious time and money, to the exclusion of other priorities, on getting these high school seniors prepared to pass the CAHSEE. Because of the incredible pressure on California schools this year to show that they have fulfilled their educational mission and can graduate 100 percent of their senior class, a number of extreme measures – including private tutoring by the most skilled teachers that is intensive and free to students – will likely be used to help struggling students earn their diplomas. Right or wrong, this will be the focus, and other educational missions can be expected to take a backseat.

At a press conference last month at the county board of education, Patrick Henry High School principal Pat Crowder said she has 42 seniors this year who still need to pass the CAHSEE, about half of whom are special education students or English language learners. The night before the test, students will receive supporting phone calls from school staff, she said – adding, only half joking, that when they take the test, she will be praying for them.

So will a lot of other people.

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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