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Ethnic gap lingers in '06 class

Published May 19, 2005 1:12 am

Utah's high school exit exam shows most minorities still lagging badly
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An ethnic breakdown of pass rates for the state's high school exit exam came down as state officials and community leaders expected - disappointing.

One in five Anglo and Asian students in the Class of 2006 have failed the math section of the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test (UBSCT), while more than half of American Indian, black and Latino students have failed that section after taking it at least once.

"I'm not surprised," said Gonzalo Palza, a Salt Lake City father and member of the state's Hispanic Advisory Council. "It's a sign of a deeper problem. The problem lies with the achievement gap at the elementary level."

He and other minority leaders have railed against the school system for failing to close the gap between Anglo students and kids of color.

All demographic groups have done better on the UBSCT's reading and writing sections, but there were ethnic gaps on those tests, too.

State school officials presented the results to the Legislature's Education Interim Committee on Wednesday.

The results cover the pass rates for students in the class of 2006 who have taken the exam between one to three times since the spring of their sophomore year.

However, the numbers may include students who are no longer in Utah schools.

For example, state data show that 1,919 Latino students in the class of 2006 did not pass the math section after attempting it at least once.

Yet, another set of state data - based on February enrollment counts - show that only 581 Latino students in the same graduating class still need to pass the exam in order to earn a basic diploma.

Reasons behind the difference are murky because the state doesn't have the capacity to track individual students from school to school or district to district, said Judy Park, the state's director of evaluation and assessment. It is unclear, then, if many of the failed students have dropped out, transferred to another district or moved out of state since the test was first given in February 2004.

Those kinds of questions can be answered next year, when students are assigned identification numbers that follow them wherever they are in Utah, Park said.

"We're going to more clearly and accurately say we know exactly what happened to every one of those kids - whether they moved, dropped out, how many times they took the test," she said.

Enrollment counts also show the number of students in other ethnic groups who have yet to pass the math section of the exam: 114 Asian students, 105 American Indians, 64 blacks, 90 Pacific Islanders, 5,186 Anglos and 26 students whose ethnicity is undeclared.

The class of 2006 is the first required to pass all three sections of the UBSCT to earn a basic high school diploma.

Students get five chances to pass each section, beginning in the spring of their sophomore year. So far, 97 percent of this year's enrolled juniors have passed the reading section, 90 percent the math section and 83 percent the reading section.

Those who attempt the test at least three times, but still fail at least one section, will earn an alternative diploma - as long as they fulfill other state and school district graduation require- ments.

Students who fail the test, take it fewer than three times or otherwise don't meet graduation requirements will earn a certificate of completion, but not a diploma.

Rep. Kory Holdaway urged committee members to prepare themselves for panicked parents and students over the next year, when the consequences of not passing kick in.

"There's going to be an outcry, and we need to be ready to address the questions that come to us," said Holdaway, a Taylorsville Republican and special education teacher.

He noted that one of his students, a junior, already has expressed thoughts about dropping out because he doubts he can pass the exam.

Earlier this year, the Legislature denied the state school board's request for $10 million to offer tutoring, summer school and other help for students struggling to pass the exam.

Lawmakers also rejected a request for $6 million to help boost math instruction in grades four through six - foundational years for the abstract concepts that will be covered in algebra and geometry and on the UBSCT.

"The math is very troubling to me because, unlike reading or writing, any gap in the sequence throws the whole sequence into disarray," state Superintendent Patti Harrington said.

Math scores pose enough of a concern that she is contemplating whether ninth-graders should be required to earn grade-level course credit in math before being promoted to 10th grade.

"Maybe they need to be remediated there," she said. "Maybe we need to make that the gateway instead of the UBSCT."

By this time next year, schools and districts will have to decide how to treat students with basic diplomas versus alternative diplomas and certificates of completion.

The state Office of Education has recommended schools not single out alternative-diploma or certificate holders during graduation ceremonies.

Rep. John Dougall said schools shouldn't be so quick to shelter students from reality.

"We live in a hard world," said the Highland Republican. "If I go off to graduate school and I do my time and I don't pass a class, they don't give me a Ph.D. . . . There's a thing called consequences."





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