Santa Barbara News Press

UNDER PRESSURE: Students Under the Gun to Pass High School Exit Exam

The summer after a kid’s senior year is supposed to be an exciting time of transition.

But for the 60 seniors in Santa Barbara who haven’t passed the high school exit exam, the dog days have been stress-filled, a cram session to prepare for their last chance at a timely diploma.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, many of the roughly 40,000 seniors across California who haven’t passed will take the test again. That’s 9 percent of the graduating class of 2006.

Among them is San Marcos High School student Peter Coronado. Having already passed the English half of the test, Peter is gearing up for the math portion on Wednesday and finding himself in an awkward position: His father is urging him to stop coming to school and start working for him.

“He just told me to pack up my stuff,” Peter, 17, said.

For the first time in state history, passing the test is a must to earn a diploma.

Like the other students, if Peter doesn’t pass, he faces some tough choices. He can go to work without a diploma, take adult education classes at Santa Barbara City College, pick up a GED or sign up for a fifth year of high school.

To prepare, he has been taking what may be the most urgent summer school course of his life.

“It’s big-time stress,” said Peter, an easygoing former football lineman who sports an L.A. ball cap, rings and earrings. “It just kind of holds you back from the real world.”

Peter’s father never finished high school, but, unlike most dropouts, he’s doing just fine. His business, Coronado Trucking, affords him financial security; he just bought a home in Palmdale. Now, he wants to teach Peter the secrets of the trade.

As an aspiring mechanic, Peter’s all for it, but he still wants that diploma. For him, it is more about meeting a personal goal than getting ahead in life.

And, while his employment future looks promising, Peter wants to be the first man in his family to graduate high school. His older brother didn’t make it, either.

Peter is excruciatingly close. He put in his requisite 60 hours of community service, coaching T-ball. The former San Marcos football player earned all B’s and C’s — coach wouldn’t stand for any D’s. Last month, he proudly walked the stage in cap and gown.

“They were both really happy,” he said of his father and brother. “It just felt good.”

But the diploma won’t come in the mail until he passes that three-hour test.

“I can’t sit in one place for hours,” he said. “I get impatient, try to guess. That’s when I mess up. I get all stressed.”

For most people, a high school diploma literally puts money in their pocket.

The average American high school dropout earns $19,300 annually, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. Those with just a high school diploma and no post-secondary education average $29,800. Holders of two-year associate’s degrees take in $36,600; four-year bachelor’s degrees, $50,300; advanced degrees, $65,000.

Compared to the rest of the state, Santa Barbara’s success rate is twice the statewide average. The 60 local students, most of whom attend one of the district’s three main high schools, represent about 4 percent of this years’ graduating class.

The vast majority of students who haven’t passed the test — 44 of 60 — are considered English learners; most of them are native Spanish speakers.

Whatever their reason for failing the test, students who have completed all other graduation requirements have one last chance to pass the exam the summer after their senior year. State law requires schools to help students who are not showing progress toward passing the test, perhaps offering additional courses, summer school and tutoring.

Students may take the exam until they pass. Those who don’t pass can take the GED, a nationally recognized high school equivalency exam for adults. They can also earn a diploma through adult education.

The next round of exams comes about a week after the release of the results of the last one, taken in mid-May. In Santa Barbara, just eight of the 68 seniors tested that month passed, said Davis Hayden, the district’s director of research and technology.

He wasn’t surprised by the poor passing rate among the remaining seniors from Santa Barbara, San Marcos and Dos Pueblos high schools, as well as a handful of smaller alternative high schools.

“We’re getting down to the kids who have the hardest time,” he said.