February 16, 2006
Passing the High School Test

By Debra Saunders

Arturo Gonzalez is a formidable attorney. The son of unschooled immigrants, he graduated from the UC-Davis, then Harvard Law School. Today, he is a partner at Morrison & Foerster. Last week, he told The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board, "If (state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack) O'Connell had been my superintendent" when he was going to high school, "I would not have gotten a diploma."

Gonzalez represents parents and students who are suing the state of California to put off -- once again -- the year when California students must pass an exit exam in order to receive a high-school diploma -- as mandated by a 1999 law. The lawyer's argument is that it is unfair to not grant a diploma to a student who has completed 13 years of school and repeatedly received passing grades in math, English and other classes, because the student cannot pass "one test."

The problem is that it is really not fair to graduate a high-school senior who can't handle basic math and English. The whole point of the exit exam was to make sure that students who go to low-performing schools get, at the very least, a basic education. If Gonzalez wins, ignorance scores a victory.

A few other points: The exit exam is not a one-time sink-or-swim test. Students begin taking the exit exams' two tests -- a 9th-grade-level-math test and 10th-grade-level-English test -- in the sophomore year. Students need to score at least 55 percent in math -- which is multiple choice, so students only have to figure out which one of four answers is correct -- and at least 60 percent in English language arts.

Once students have passed a test, they never have to take it again.

If they fail, they can retake one or both tests twice in the junior year, then three times in the senior year. As O'Connell sees it -- and he wrote the exit-exam bill -- if you fail the test, "It simply means your education is not complete." You don't have the minimum skills to succeed in this economy.

O'Connell noted that failing doesn't end a student's options. Those who fail can take a summer-school course or attend an extra year of school, or take the test without going to class for an "unlimited" number of tries.

But wait -- as tacky commercials exhort -- there's more. School districts can elect to grant certificates of completion for students who pass other school requirements, but fail the test.

Students who flunk the test also can go for a GED or earn a high-school diploma through an adult-education program.

Gonzalez argued that some students know the material, but fail because of "test anxiety." To the extent that is true, these kids don't stand a chance in real life. How can they survive a job interview? Or athletic competition? Gonzalez says one of his students wants to be a firefighter. That student will have to pass tests to become a firefighter -- or should cities dump firefighter tests, too, in the hope that recruits won't be too anxious when a fire alarm sounds?

A plaintiff in his suit is Liliana Valenzuela, who has a 3.84 grade-point average and is 12th in her senior class of 413 students. She passed the math test the first time, but has failed the English test, Gonzalez said, because she came here from Mexico four years ago.

"I want to go to college and become a registered nurse," Liliana wrote in a statement. "But this exam is unfair. I really want to wear my cap and gown, and I don't know what to do to make my dream a reality."

I know what she can do: Study harder.

Getting a legal loophole around the exit exam will not make this young lady educated or help make her dream to be a nurse come true. If she cannot pass the exit exam, how can she survive college?

It is harsh to not grant a full diploma to students who have completed their coursework. It also is harsh to allow students to enter adulthood unable to read instructions on appliances or without understanding what it means when a sale price is 25 percent off.

On a personal note, Gonzalez told The Chronicle about his high-school career. He knew from a young age, he said, that he wanted to be a trial lawyer. But he was not good at math, and he needed to take algebra to get into UC.

Guess what? Gonzalez took algebra and passed. Actually, Gonzalez would have had a diploma under O'Connell.

Yet now he wants California schools to demand less than they demanded of him. He believes he is protecting minority students and immigrants, but he is protecting their right to graduate without 9th-grade-math skills or the ability to read what a sophomore should be able to read.

It may well be that if Arturo Gonzalez had a lawyer like him when he was a student, he would not be the lawyer he is today.

Copyright 2006 Creators Syndicate

Debra Saunders

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