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Study: State Help Comes Too Late for Students Facing Calif. Exit Exams

California's remedial interventions may be coming too late to do much good for high school upperclassmen working to pass the exit exam required for graduation, according to a study released by the Public Policy Institute of California.

California is one of 25 states to require students to take an exam in order to qualify for a high school diploma, and since the state implemented the California High School Exit Exam in 2006, it has also been used to gauge high schools' adequate yearly progress for federal education accountability.

As of 2010, the institute found nearly a third of students fail the test on their first try, usually in grade 10, and one in 16 students cannot pass both the mathematics and English/language arts portions by their senior year (Students can take the the two-part exam once in grade 10, twice in grade 11 and up to five times in grade 12.)

Several state and local programs intended to help students tackle the test have been implemented since 2006. A team led by Julian R. Betts, economics professor at the University of California, San Diego, analyzed the effectiveness of three: state programs to support district funding for tutoring in 11th and 12 grades; state grants for districts to support students who continue to fail the exit exam by senior year; and San Diego public school test preparatory classes for 11th and 12th grade students who have failed mathematics or language arts portions of the exam.

The researchers used data from students in the classes of 2006 through 2009 to model the effectiveness of those interventions. They found the number of students taking the test preparation classes in San Diego has risen steadily, from 449 for the class of 2006 to 1,817 in the class of 2009. And taking a preparatory course did help students scores significantly in the particular subject prepped—in 2008-09, students who took subject-specific prep classes were 20 percent more likely to pass the math portion and 31 percent more likely to pass the language arts portion of the test—but the students did not increase their chances of passing the overall exit exam. As a whole, both supplemental tutoring and prep classes only improved the number of students passing the exit exams by 1.5 to 3 percent.

"It's clear that we need better ways to help students in high school—or new efforts to help them prepare for the exam well before they first take it in grade 10," Betts said in a statement on the study.

The report also noted that students are increasingly looking to take test preparation classes in earlier high school grades, though the state programs only support them at upper grades. Betts and his team argued that interventions to improve exit exam passing rates must be based on thorough content instruction from early grades on, not just supplemental help at the end of a student's academic career.

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