A State Mandated Underclass

root - Posted on 20 December 2006

Bay Area high school students, parents and advocates rally in support of alternative bills to the High School Exit Exam but the Govenator vetoes them anyway

by Tiny/PNN

"Arnold has thrown down with all the other haters," POOR Magazine Youth in Media intern, William W, 17, flipped his thin chocolate brown hand in the air toward a place where "Arnold" (Schwarzenegger) might be.

William, a very low-income, formerly houseless, African Descendent student at Oakland Technical High School and intern with POOR's Youth in Media program, was referring to Arnold's recent veto of AB1531 which would have allowed school districts to develop alternatives to the mandatory high school exit exam that California students have to pass before they graduate and receive their diploma. AB1531, along with SB385, which focuses on allowing English learner students to take the high school exit exam in the student's first language, were vetoed by the increasingly right wing leaning Govenator on Friday Oct 7th.

"Arnold, what if when you came to the United States someone told you that you had to take a test just to receive your high school diploma even though you only spoke German," asked Eduardo Ayala. Ayala, was one of several youth from Richmond High School who spoke at an emergency press conference sponsored by Fuerza Unida and Youth Together held on Thursday. They were requesting support from the community for these two bills, which were the last chance to save low-income students, immigrant students and students of color in California schools from the racist, classist exit exam which comes with the penalty of not passing high school and receiving your diploma.

As Eduardo spoke to the crowd of powerful youth, teachers, politicians and advocates gathered together to promote these bills in a last ditch attempt to save California's youth, I was struck by the irony of his heartfelt question to Arnold. In fact, as I did some research for this story I found that notwithstanding Arnold's anti-youth, anti-immigrant, jingoist stance, the Austrian school system which Arnold is a product of, teaches its children to master three languages. When confronted with an increasing mono-lingual Slovenian population in one of its districts, the schools began, without protest or fascist policy interlopers to incorporate the Slovenian language into their core curriculum. Not to mention the fact that Austria, like most of Western Europe, is a welfare state that supports its population with low and/or no cost healthcare, child care and housing, cradle to grave. Perhaps, as he states in his message about his veto of 385; As an immigrant whose second language is English, I know the importance of mastering English as quickly and as comprehensively as possible, in order to be successful in the United States, he should have added that he already knew English when he arrived in the US, because he had the privilege of an elementary and secondary education that included a tri-language curriculum, something all California would benefit from.

"This test discriminates against not just Latino students but all immigrants and students of color," Eduardo added

"We are representing all English learner students in California, that's over 1. 5 million students in public schools, that's one out of every four Californian students' speak a language that is other than English," Raul Alcarez, organizer with Youth Together who co-emceed the bi-lingual press conference with a young Raza student, Maria Celebon, addressed the crowd.

Raul and Maria continued in tandem, "If these bills are not signed many high school students and students of color will not be receiving their diploma - we are hard-working students - we are simply asking that this test be more fair, that there be alternatives to the exit exam or that it be given in the students' first language "cause one size doesn't fit all." Following Raul and Maria's introduction several mono-lingual and English learner students declared their extremely logical and well-reasoned requests to the Govenator to pass these bills. One of them was Elise Padilla, a direct, no-nonsense, Raza female who addressed the crowd in Spanish.

"Soy estudiante de Richmond High. Estoy en el duodicimo grado. El Gobernador fue elegido como representante de California, y ahora es el momento que de verdad nos demuestra que representa los intereses de nosotros estudiantes" (I am a student in Richmond High. I am in the 12th grade. The Governor was elected as a representative of California, and now is the time that he truly demonstrate to us that he represents the interests of us, the students.]

As well as students, teachers and counselors from Richmond High and Met-West High in Oakland and organizers from Californians For Justice, the press conference included the supportive voices of Richmond City Council members Gayle Mcloughlan and John Marquez as well as a representative from Representative George Miller's office, who stated that he, "hadn't weighed in yet on the state-based propositions." This was interesting, as Miller is one of the lead proponents of the highly problematic, full of lies and mythologies, No Child Left Behind Act( NCLB). NCLB is the frame in which the exit exam lives, and in and of itself is fraught with several punitive, anti-child, anti-learning policies, policies that have a dire impact on low-income schools like Richmond High and many others in West Contra Costa County. An act that I have re-named No Child Left Alive.

"The High School exit exam is a racist policy aimed at disenfranchising low-income students of color and making their communities more susceptible to poverty and its related ills," Olivia Araiza, Program Director with Justice Matters Institute, said. Justice Matters works on racial justice policy in education, specifically, changing harmful policies that impact low-income youth of color and immigrant youth across California and re-defining what schools for low-income children, children of color and immigrant children look like and act like.

"The high school exit exam is a state policy and it is used to satisfy one of the requirements of the federal NCLB act, but NCLB doesn't mandate a penalty on the exam. California added the penalty of not getting a diploma, which results in keeping our communities at the bottom, so creating a permanent underclass is now mandated by the state," Olivia concluded.

In addition to a huge outcry from educators, advocates and thousands of youth across the state, the state's own sanctioned research team, Human Resources Research Organization (HUMRRO) acknowledged in their just released study that due to the impact of the exit exams, over 100,000 students will be denied diplomas in 2006 and recommended implementing multiple methods of assessing English and Math skills to determine a students' real life academic ability.

In response to the veto, Assembly Member Karen Bass, (D. Los Angeles) who authored 1531 said, "I am disappointed that the Governor can't see the residual effect of mass failure of students whose schools do not have adequate resources."

Or as Liz Guillen, Director of Legislative & Community Affairs with Public Advocates Inc, stated, " The Governor believes that alternative assessments would lower California's standards, which is counter to the findings of the states own evaluator (HUMMRO) as well as a similar study conducted by Stanford (University) on the need for multiple assessment."

Because of these and other similar findings, North Carolina and Florida recently passed laws requiring non-test alternatives. New York's state senate passed a bill authorizing the use of portfolios and performance assessments as alternatives to the state tests. As well, Wisconsin repealed its exit exam after creating local performance assessments and Indiana developed an alternative based on students passing core courses linked to state standards. In addition, so-called "higher achieving" states like Oregon, Washington, Pennsylvania, Maine and Rhode Island all require performance assessments as part of their graduation decisions.

"These exams will have an immediate impact on Black, Brown and poor students in California," said Kim Shree-Mofas, parent and tireless advocate for San Francisco's student body. She continued, "Low-income students of color are not benefiting from this kind of testing at all."

From POOR's perspective Kim is more qualified than Arnold to judge what is good for California's student body considering she has an African Descendent 18 year old daughter who is still having trouble with California's already under-funded, under-resourced school system

"I don't see the point of high school for four years," Kristi Dyes, recent San Francisco high school graduate and now college journalism major said. In my discussions with youth of color scholars on this issue I spoke with Kristi. “ That means that high school would be spent preparing you for taking a test because if you failed the test that could prevent you from getting your diploma." Kristi concluded.

As Kristi spoke, I was reminded of my own experience as a very low-income child who was homeless for much of my elementary school years and eventually had to drop out of school in the sixth grade to care for my family, only to find out as an adult without a high school diploma that I was unable to qualify for financial aid in the state of California, making my struggle to come up and out of poverty as a low-income single parent, even more unattainable.

"The Governor's veto sends a message to students of color, disabled students and immigrant students that they don't deserve a diploma," declared Raquel Jimenez, one of the lead organizers from Youth Together. After the veto came down I spoke with Raquel who worked with Youth Together and Fuerza Unida to sponsor Thursday's press conference. "Therefore California is not willing to provide equal opportunities to all students," Raquel added.

When I asked Raquel what Youth Togethers' next steps would be, she added, "We need to step up our organizing and go the legal route."

"I am already having a hard time with school, but I have stuck with it….Now I feel like what's the point," William concluded. As I listened to William speak, his face filled with dread at the possibility that he would have to take the exit exam even though he has serious learning disabilities, I hoped Raquel was right.

Thanks to William Romero and Valentina Velez-Rocha from Justice Matters for research assistance


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