Results of high school exit exams show little change overall, but incremental progress drew praise from local and state educators. The pencil-and-paper test, tied to the old state standards, chugged away like a sturdy old pickup as trial-run computerized assessments whizzed by last spring.
“Our scores have remained relatively flat, as have the county and state. As the district has been transitioning to the Common Core State Standards, our teachers have focused on the new standards,” said Modesto City Schools Superintendent Pam Able.
No matter how dated the test, however, students need to pass it to graduate. “The most recent graduation data showing a 6 percent increase in our graduation rate reflects Modesto City Schools’ commitment to helping our students successfully pass the (exam),” Able added in an emailed response.
This year, the exit exam stands as one of the few student progress measures being released for 2013-14, key to meeting federal mandates imposed by the expired No Child Left Behind Act, said Escalon Unified Superintendent Ron Costa.
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“High schools have the exit exam and graduation rates. That’s what they’re using,” Costa said Friday, noting Escalon High met all its federal targets. Because the act now demands every child be at grade level, it met the mandate through an alternative measure.
“One way you can do it is to have 100 percent of students proficient. The second way is to have decreased your nonproficient students by 10 percent or more,” Costa said. In Escalon’s case, at least 10 percent more students hit the proficient mark of 380 in math, 382 in English. He credited the jump to a new advising program that asks students to take an active role in planning their future careers.
“I think that all came together and gelled for the kids,” he said.
It takes a score of 350 to pass the exam. Pass rates were the only measures released Friday by the California Department of Education. Some 83.2 percent of sophomores passed the test in their first go, a whisker more (0.2 percent) than last year. Students take the test initially in the second half of their sophomore year. They have two chances their junior year and up to five retests their senior year.
By graduation, 95.5 percent of the Class of 2014 had passed, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a statement.
But that figure excludes many special-education students, whose first-time pass rate hovers around 40 percent statewide. English learners also have a tough time passing the test, with just more than half passing the English portion and even fewer passing math the first time they take it. Statewide, one in five English learners in the Class of 2014 failed to pass the graduation requirement.
Exit exam opponents point to such statistics, saying it causes more students to give up and drop out. Other critics say the test is too easy, tied to standards that do not come close to approximating high school-level work. The test will likely be updated to match California’s changed standards, but will continue to chug along as is for now, said Waterford Unified Superintendent Don Davis.
“Until the Legislature acts, the students will have to pass the existing exam. Much of what is in the test, current high school students learned in middle school or before, they’re not at a disadvantage compared to previous classes,” Davis said Friday. Some 87 percent of Waterford High sophomores passed both the math and English portions of the test.
Riverbank High showed strong improvement, with 81 percent of its 10th-graders passing the English test and 86 percent passing math – an eight-point jump.
“Over the past five years, RHS sophomore (exit exam) pass rates have increased by 14 percent in mathematics and 15 percent in English language arts. Staff and students have engaged in targeted systemic instruction in reading, writing, and mathematics in order to improve student pass rates,” said Principal Sean Richey.
In Turlock, teens who need extra help to pass the test attend a “boot camp” focused on exit exam material, said Turlock Unified Superintendent Sonny Da Marto. “Turlock Adult School has seen a significant increase in passing rates, which proves the increased focus and interventions are working,” he said Friday.
Turlock High first-time test takers did slightly better in math, but slipped in English. Pitman High sophomores did better this year in English, but slipped a point in math.
More Ceres teens passed the exam on the first try, with about 83 percent passing both parts of the test. Passing rates went up three points in English and two points in math, said Debi Bukko, assistant superintendent of Ceres Unified. She credited the rise to early work on Common Core and a focus on literacy in every classroom.
“In addition, 50 percent of Ceres 10th-graders who passed the English exam passed at the proficient level, earning a 380 or higher,” Bukko said.
Patterson High sophomores held steady with last year’s results, said Veronica Miranda, assistant superintendent for Patterson Unified. PHS gives its sophomores a short review blast just before the March test, she said.
About 78 percent of Patterson 10th-graders passed both math and English sections. Non-native speakers who learned English fluently outperformed all other groups. “Our best performing subgroup continues to be our reclassified student with a passage rate of 91 percent in English language arts and 96 percent in math,” Miranda said.
Ripon High sophomores also did well, with about 88 percent passing both math and English tests. Girls did significantly better than boys, with nine out of 10 female sophomores passing both tests, compared with about eight in 10 of the boys, results supplied by Ripon Unified Superintendent William Draa show.
In Manteca Unified, Superintendent Jason Messer said the district outperformed the San Joaquin County average.
“The district has reached a point where a large majority of its students pass the (exam) during their first attempt as 10th-graders. The district continues to focus on providing resources and interventions for groups of students who struggle with passing (it) so that every student has the opportunity to pass sometime during their high school years,” Messer said via email.