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Thursday, Nov. 2, 2006 | While county educators are focusing their attention on helping under-achieving students pass the California High School Exit Exam, other serious problems are being overlooked that will follow these children for the rest of their lives.

Failing the CAHSEE means no high school diploma, a huge impediment to success in adulthood. So time and effort — and money — devoted to improving pass rates is worthy.

And there has been success. The number of students passing the CAHSEE has increased dramatically since 2003.

Yet the achievement gap continues to loom large on tests that measure real learning of subject material in the classroom. So while CAHSEE pass rates are up, learning — particularly among subgroups like Latinos and African-Americans — remains down.

Using data supplied in 2005 by the San Diego County Office of Education, the table below shows disparity in achievement between English-only fluent and Latino students — and highlights the low academic performance overall. The county education officials chose to break down the statistics between those two groups in that way, although there are obviously overlaps with Latinos who speak fluent English as their only language.

Interestingly, in math, there was a precipitous slide in achievement from second grade to ninth grade, for both English-only fluent and Latino students. The county’s English-only fluent students started in second grade with 72 percent achieving well in math but dropped percentage points at each grade level, to a low of 27 percent by ninth grade.

Latino students showed the same drop in math, starting at 48 percent proficient or advanced in second grade and falling to 12 percent by ninth grade.

With these low scores, one wonders how much individual tutoring is required to get all these kids — Latino and non-Latino — to pass the CAHSEE by the time they are seniors.

Doing the day-to-day, back-breaking work of instructing students in the classroom and having them demonstrate how much they’ve learned by performing well on annual assessment tests is much harder than the one-time, goal-oriented task of helping students pass one particular exam like the CAHSEE.

To pass the CAHSEE, low-achieving students are tutored long and hard, and repeatedly given individual attention at taxpayer expense. And the resulting increased pass rates may be celebratory. But annual test scores that assess what has actually been learned show that major problems exist.

Academic Performance Index numbers released by the state on Aug. 31 indicate that the achievement gap is alive and well at local districts, despite improved CAHSEE pass rates.

The following API numbers (800 is the state’s target) were recorded for the San Diego Unified School District for the 2005-2006 school year:

White: 839

Asian: 825

African-American: 666

Latino: 660

English Language Learners: 636

The district’s passing rate for the math portion of the CAHSEE for the Class of 2006 was 97 percent. So are SDUSD’s ELL, Latino and African-American students really learning the material? Or are they being tutored just enough to receive their diplomas and then sent out into the world inadequately prepared?

The story is the same elsewhere in the county. At the San Dieguito Union High School District, one of the highest-scoring districts in the county, the following API scores were released by the state in August:

Asian: 936

White: 870

Latino: 684

English Language Learners: 660

African-American: not recorded (number too small to be statistically significant)

The difference in San Dieguito between ELL students and white students is 210 points, and is a staggering 276 points between ELL and Asian students. Yet San Diego County Office of Education data shows that only 19 students out of 1,981 seniors at San Dieguito failed the math portion of the CAHSEE — less than 1 percent.

So they are passing the CAHSEE. But when academic content is tested, it is clear that minimal progress has been made to close the achievement gap and address the compelling needs of San Diego County’s low-performing student populations.

Rather than using graduation rates as a measure of success, a better gauge would be to focus on improving test scores, which measure how much students have learned in primary subjects throughout the year. If they learn the material, they’ll have no trouble passing the CAHSEE. But if they pass the CAHSEE, it’s no guarantee that they have solidly learned the material.

As it is now, educators seem more interested in making sure students pass the exit exam and receive their diplomas than that students actually learn enough of the content to succeed into adulthood.

Classroom instruction to low-achieving kids is grueling work and there is no high-stakes penalty looming large for failure, like the threat of not receiving a diploma. So teaching continues as before — with dedicated teachers, a program here and some services there — but the gap remains.

There is no magic bullet for what works. It’s one student and one teacher at a time, working together with parents and the community — trying, for many, to break cultural barriers, negative outside influences, crushing poverty and an ingrained mindset for failure. And often all this hangs overhead for ELL students while they struggle to absorb the basics of a complicated language riddled with tricky pronunciation, bizarre spelling, complex grammar and sophisticated subtleties.

The county’s focus on traditionally under-performing subgroups like Latinos and African-Americans is laudable. And the mission of the county’s educators to close the achievement gap is virtuous. But it’s a lot easier to focus on one exam than on overall learning.

Instead, perhaps a way should be found to measure success by determining whether these children are suitably educated to prepare them for a productive, prosperous adult life — a difficult goal but one ultimately much more worthwhile in the long run than a piece of paper awarded for passing a single test.

Marsha Sutton writes about education and children’s issues. Contact her at marsha.sutton@voiceofsandiego.org. Or, send a letter to the editor.

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