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Report: California Dropouts Spike in First Year of Exit Exam for High School Graduation

The number of California high school dropouts spiked in 2006, the first year seniors were required to pass an exit exam to graduate, according to a report presented Wednesday to the state Board of Education.

The analysis found that 24,000 high school seniors dropped out in 2006, about 10,000 more than just four years earlier.

The information could give ammunition to lawmakers and others who have criticized the exam, as well as those who have lobbied for alternative assessments.

The firm that prepared the report, Human Resources Research Organization of Alexandria, Va., made several recommendations to the board, including a suggestion that California explore other ways for high school seniors to demonstrate proficiency. In Massachusetts and Washington state, for example, students can be judged on a portfolio of their high school work.

Jack O’Connell, superintendent of public instruction, has consistently opposed such an option. His chief deputy, Gavin Payne, told the board that the superintendent thought all but one of the recommendations were “extremely good.”

The report’s findings validate the argument that the test is hardest on students who do not have access to good schools or good teachers, said Liz Guillen, director of legislative and community affairs for the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates. That applies mostly to poor and minority students, she said.

Public Advocates sued the state over the exam and sought alternatives.

The report also highlights California’s persistent achievement gap and found an even more worrisome problem: Students who are Black, Hispanic, poor or learning English did even worse when they were in schools with high concentrations of similar students.

That poses a challenge for policymakers trying to address the achievement gap, since the vast majority of underachieving students are concentrated in such schools.

Most students are able to pass the exam in time for graduation, although critics note that as graduation day approaches more students drop out of school and stop being counted.

In the class of 2007, for example, 93 percent of the senior class had passed the test by last May.

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