School board meetings usually entail eight areas of focus: student needs, curriculum and assessment, budget/resources, technology, parents and community, staffing, staff development and facilities. Robert Otto, superintendent, and Patti Lattourelle, president of the Bonita Board, serve as leaders in the Bonita Unified School District. / photo by Reina Santa Cruz

School board meetings usually entail eight areas of focus: student needs, curriculum and assessment, budget/resources, technology, parents and community, staffing, staff development and facilities. Robert Otto, superintendent, and Patti Lattourelle, president of the Bonita Board, serve as leaders in the Bonita Unified School District. / photo by Reina Santa Cruz

by Erica Aguilar
photography by Reina Santa Cruz

A cloudy spring morning. The alarm clock abruptly buzzes. Time is ticking away until the first bell rings for school to begin.

It is Doom’s Day for everyone. Students rapidly consume breakfast, while teachers and administrators drive in rush hour traffic to get to work. Students run to class as the bell rings. Tension begins to develop. Pencils, scratch paper, and a morning snack are placed on each desk. Somberness fills the classroom as the teacher announces, “Welcome, we will now begin the first part of the California High School Exit Exam.”

Those who have already graduated high school are privileged. For students still attending high school, the easy days are over.

Beginning with the Class of 2006, all high school seniors in the state of California will be required to pass the California High School Exit Exam, or they will not receive a diploma. However, there are currently no penalties or consequences to any school district if they have a low percentage rate of students passing the exam.

The purpose of the Legislature implementing this examination in 1999 as a high school requirement is for students to be able to display proficiency in writing and mathematics upon graduation. Education Code Section 60850 gave authorization that the exam be developed in agreement with the State Board of Education.

But many parents, teachers and students disagree that the exam should be a necessity to graduate.

Dora Mora, Bassett High School senior, exclaims, “The exit exam was like taking the STAR test. We had to write an essay for the English part. It was a waste of time to take it and not be a requirement to graduate for our class. We wasted a day for nothing.”

By 2012, children who began kindergarten in 1999 will graduate from high school and will have taken approximately 80 standardized tests during those 13 years of school. These tests include the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) test and the California Achievement Test (CAT/6). Students needing assistance with English language proficiency will also be required to take the California English Language Development Test (CELDT). In addition to these tests, some students will also take AP exams and the SAT and ACT test to be admitted into a four-year university.

The CAHSEE is a two-part test: English-Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics. A score of 350 or higher is required to pass on both parts of the exam. Once one part of the test is passed, students are not required to take that part again.

Algebra, measurement and geometry, number sense and statistics comprise the math portion of the exam, all subjects that are taught in seventh grade. For example: What is 2.5 plus 1.25? Reading comprehension, word analysis, spelling, grammar, punctuation and writing applications are all brought together to form the English portion of the exam. Patrick Camacho, Bassett High School junior, says, “The test was seventh and eighth grade material. It was fairly easy but was lengthy.”

Not only do students deem it cumbersome and unnecessary, teachers share the sentiment. “If a special education or regular education student comes to school for four years; if a student passes all his or her classes; if a student completes 40 hours of service learning and meets all of his or her requirements and then does not pass the exit exam, he or she does not graduate,” says Susan Schmitt, department chair of the special education program at Bassett High School and special education teacher. “It is absolutely not fair that they do not receive their diplomas. The diploma does not tell you if they came to class everyday or if they did their homework. All it tells you is if they passed the exam.”

Students with special needs are also required to pass the CAHSEE, although test variations may apply. For instance, special education students are able to receive accommodations during testing.

Despite the cynicism surrounding the test, Robert Ketterling, principal of Bonita High School, defends the immediate overall effect. With the phone constantly ringing, the soft-spoken principal indicates, “I think the overall effect of the exit exam has been positive. Students want to pass and get it over with.”

According to Ketterling, 88 percent of Bonita High School juniors have passed the English segment of the exit exam, and 91 percent have passed the math. “We have had a strong academic focus at our District for a long time, and that has resulted in us being successful,” Ketterling remarks. “Ramona Middle School and the other elementary schools do a good job at preparing them. It is a real District team effort.”

Just 17 miles away sits Bassett Unified School District, located in La Puente. The atmosphere in La Puente is completely different from the environment in La Verne. Students struggle with daily issues such as poverty, drugs, gang activity, teen pregnancy and other pressures. The majority of the student and community population is primarily Hispanic and has many English-language learners. So how can a student who has a language barrier pass the exit exam?

The state of California does not offer the exam in Spanish or in any other language for that matter. The answer is simple: They must learn English, or they will not pass. Administrators at Bassett disagree with the prevalence of English-only tests. “I suggest that they make a Spanish version of the CAHSEE,” Camacho comments. “A lot of it is reading comprehension, and then there’s spelling, so I don’t know how they are going to pass if the exam is in English only.”

Cartha Tennille, principal of Bassett High School, states, “I think that the CAHSEE motivates students to learn. However, you have to question that (English-language learners) are held to the same standards as other students. There should be accommodations for English-language learners and special education students.”

But back at Bonita Unified, Superintendent Robert Otto weighs in on the topic: “There is a heavy emphasis of having students successful from day one. Bond Measure C passed because parents were involved, and there is a high parent interest in student success,” he explains on a treacherous, rainy afternoon in his meticulously tidy office. Otto has been superintendent of Bonita Unified for three years and was assistant superintendent for one. In prior years, he worked in a private sector in different areas of Southern California, such as Newport Beach and Costa Mesa.

He continues on this stormy day by casually explaining how each school site develops an academic plan at the beginning of the school year so that students will most likely achieve. As for the exams, “There should be requirements to graduate. To say that people should receive a diploma is a fallacy,” he declares.

“I kind of think there should be standards to receive their diplomas in order to benefit them in the future. It would probably be a good thing,” comments Karey Lugo, parent who formerly resided in Pomona. Lugo’s daughter, Leigha, attended Bonita High School last year and is now a sophomore at Bassett High School.

Bonita Unified School District will be giving special recognition to the Class of 2005 students who passed the exit exam last year. A special seal will be placed on their diplomas upon graduation. Other than that, nothing.

The problem does not seem as though the CAHSEE exam is difficult; in fact, many students who will be graduating this June think it unfair that they were required to take it when the Legislature made it a graduation requirement beginning with the Class of 2006.

But when that time comes, the real, complex issues remain at home and at school where curriculum and discipline play an intricate part in the lives of children and teenagers. Without a stabilized home life and a strong educational system, high school students may fail the exit exam.