San Francisco school officials and advocates for the disabled have recently made news fighting the state requirement that special education students take the high school exit exam. Upon closer inspection, this seeming issue of simple compassion becomes much more complicated.
Students must pass the state high school exit exam, first administered in 2001, to earn a diploma. Only in the last couple years have special ed students – those who have one or more of a variety of disabilities – been required to take the test. A little more than half of special ed students pass the exam compared to around nine of 10 students overall.
Unsurprisingly, this disparity has drawn a worried response from some. Tara Kini, an attorney with the anti-exit-exam Public Advocates organization, recently said, “When kids can’t pass the exam and graduate, their life chances are really being cut off.” Many members of the San Francisco school district’s special ed advisory council also oppose the testing requirement due to perceived unfairness.
While understandable, this appealing knee-jerk reaction is seriously flawed. Although called a “high school” exit exam, the test only requires knowledge of up to eighth-grade math and 10th-grade English, and students can take it multiple times from the 10th through 12th grades. Not only is the content undemanding, so are the passing benchmarks. To pass the math section, students need answer only 55 percent of the questions correctly and only 60 percent on the English section.
The bar, therefore, has been set extremely low for all students, including special ed students. In addition, an independent evaluation of the exit exam conducted by the Virginia-based Human Resources Research Organization found that of those special ed students receiving nonintensive services, such as help from a special ed resource specialist, half passed while still in the 10th grade. Those who failed to pass at that time performed better when tested in the 11th grade.
While acknowledging that some special ed students will have a very difficult time passing the exit exam, the researchers said that with continued assistance, many special ed students will have a good chance to pass the exam. Therefore, it’s “reasonable to ask both schools and students themselves to work to meet that standard.”
Finally, if special ed students are exempted from taking and passing the exit exam, schools will be tempted to label low-performing students as special ed students just to bump up their exam passage rates. African American students would be especially hard hit because not only are their academic performance levels lower than whites and Asians, but they are already disproportionately represented among the special ed population.
It has been well reported that African American children who have trouble reading are often “diagnosed” as mentally retarded. “[I]f you have a problem with reading,” observes student services specialist Vivian Stith-Williams, “then you need to get assistance with reading.” However, she warns, “Instead, what happens is that special education becomes the dumping ground for these instructional issues.”
Some districts, instead of complaining, have risen to the challenge by implementing programs such as pre-exit-exam academic boot camps for special ed students. Higher expectations for special ed students and greater confidence in their abilities underlie such efforts. A positive agenda focused on getting special ed students to pass the exit exam will, in most cases, help these young people succeed in life much more than compassionate defeatism.
Lance T. Izumi is senior director in education studies at the Pacific Research Institute.
This article appeared on page B – 5 of the San Francisco Chronicle