Posted on February 27, 2006

Exit Exam a Test of Determination

Nanette Asimov, San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 27, 2006

For a 16-year-old, Iris Padilla’s resume looks pretty good: Not only is she already a senior close to completing all the credits needed to graduate from Richmond High, she’s president of a Latin American culture club and is active in political and religious clubs at school. Next year, Iris wants to go to college and study psychology.

But Richmond High might not let her graduate this spring.

That’s because Iris hasn’t passed the exit exam, and she has only one more chance before graduation day to tackle the two-day test, on March 21-22.

Iris is one of 73,270 California high school seniors in the same pickle — unable to fulfill a new state law requiring students to pass a test of basic English, math and algebra to graduate. That’s 1 in 5 members of the state’s Class of 2006, says the state Department of Education.

More than half of those who still need to pass — 40,002 students — are like Iris: They don’t speak much English.

The question of whether to deny diplomas to otherwise qualified students is divisive, with passions high on both sides. Critics sued state educators earlier this month, challenging the legality of the exam, while the same state educators say they are acting in the best interests of students.

“I need a diploma,” said Iris, a chestnut-haired girl who was born in Los Angeles and grew up in the Mexican state of Jalisco. “I want it. I deserve it. I’ve been going to school and studying. I want to have a profession.”

Iris said all of this in Spanish. She returned to California in 2004 after the grandmother she’d been living with in Mexico died. Now she lives with her Spanish-speaking mother in an apartment near Richmond High in the West Contra Costa Unified School District.

Iris’ English is so iffy that pronouncing the words makes her blush. When pressed, she easily identified a shrimp but was stumped by a spoon. Asked by a reporter to write something in English, Iris crafted several simple sentences, including, “I was born in the United States,” and “I think that the exit exam is innecesary.” But like many students in her position, she’s studying hard.