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GUEST OPINION from school board member Karen Pfeifer: Why I oppose diploma resolution

April 8, 2006


Greetings,

I anticipate the School Board meeting on April 10th
with sadness and anxiety. It seems that a lot of well
meaning people are about to clash over a misguided
resolution without substance to our students and of
danger to our district.

As you have probably all heard, School Board Member
Dave Brown has placed a resolution on the agenda to
award diplomas to students who have not filled the
state requirements for high school graduation.
Specifically, he wants to award diplomas to students
who have not yet passed the California State High
School Exit Exam.

I am writing about why I oppose this resolution and
why I am urging you to attend Monday's meeting and to
speak in support of education, accountability and
fairness.

You, as parents, taxpayers, workers and employers,
likely hold the assumption that a High School diploma
means something. Probably you think it means that the
graduate has a basic education and is ready for higher
education, apprenticeship or work. You all know that
these endeavors demand literacy, math ability and
functional understanding of our mainstream language,
English. I know many of our graduates bring much more
into their futures, but I think these are the minimum.

It is currently being argued that spending the time to
collect 225 units of high school credit is enough to
assure us that our graduates have these basic skills.
All of these students have taken Algebra I, the
English Language Arts series and an assortment of
other required courses--and passed them with at least
a ďDĒ grade. Up until this year this was enough.

Six years ago, in 1999, our state government passed a
law that said that in this year, 2006, public schools
could only award diplomas to students who completed
the classes and passed the Exit Exam. We have been
administering this exam since 2000. It has been given
to all students during their sophomore year. Any
student who didnít pass the first time is give
opportunity to retake the test multiple times in their
junior and senior years.

To pass the exam a student must show eighth grade
algebra ability and tenth grade English Language Arts
knowledge. The test is given in English. For better
or worse, English is the official language of the
State of California and our lawmakers think that it is
important that high school graduates be fluent enough
to take and pass this test. A passing score on the
CASHEE is 58%.

So what is the accountability question? How is it
that we have students who cannot pass this exam? Who
is responsible for the large number (48,000
state-wide) of students who have not passed this test?
I think it is the school districts, WCCUSD included,
who have allowed students to "pass" without mastery or
even competence in their studies. It is the teachers
who passed troubled students, who graded on attendance
and attitude rather than competence, who were afraid
to "fail" students. It is the administrators, from
principals to superintendents, who have seen the exit
exam scores and lots of other evidence of systemic
failure and done too little, too late. It is the
School Boards (where the buck stops) who heard about
this problem distantly and left the solutions to the
administrators and consultants.

Mr. Brown says that we should not punish the students
for the system's failure. He is right. But what
about the huge numbers of students over many years who
have been punished by our failure to prepare them for
the next steps of their lives, have been punished by
inadequate educations? How can we change this?

The state has mandated that we offer diplomas to
students who have completed a minimum course of study
and can demonstrate their knowledge in an exit exam.
As a board member I believe I must be accountable to
our taxpayers and that I am sworn to uphold the law.
And I am committed to finding ways to improve
education for all our students and making sure they
all get the education they deserve. I believe that
every one of our students is capable of passing the
exit exam.

WCCUSD has offered an array of special "prep courses"
and tutoring over the last year. Too few students
have taken advantage of these and, in fact, much of
this work is too late for many students. Still the
district continues to stand behind each and every
student. We will keep these students in our system or
help them into another system until they pass the exit
exam. Every student who has completed the course work
can earn a diploma if he/she wants it.

It is fair, equitable, to support every student to
achieve and demonstrate competence. The vast majority
of our students have taken the necessary courses and
passed this exam. I believe all our students can
graduate and I support their efforts and all of the
programs designed to help our students pass the exit
exam. Using this state mandated benchmark, all
students can have a diploma they will be proud of and
our employers and colleges will know what the diploma
represents.

Finally, whether you or I believe the exit exam, and
the standards on which it is based, are reasonable or
adequate, we canít just ignore state education
mandates. The school board is not a law-making body,
and politicians who want to make state law need to run
for office in the legislature. The state sets
educational guidelines, by law, and the school board
is mandated to fulfill those guidelines. This
arrangement is the basis of the stateís funding and
accrediting our schools. If we arbitrarily refuse to
follow the law we are at risk to have the state step
in and run our schools for us. No one wants that.

I realize that I have gone on for a long time: thank
you for reading this much. I join with you and many
others in feeling passionate about learning, about
education. With your help, I am committed to making
good choices for the youth of our community.

The meeting on Monday, 4/10, is at 4 pm at DeJean
Middle School (Macdonald Ave., Richmond).

Thank you all for your interest and concern for all
our kids.

Karen Pfeifer,
WCCUSD School Board Member

Run dates: 2006-04-09 - 2006-04-16
 


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