By Kimberly S. Wetzel

Faced with the possibility of not receiving a diploma, more California sophomores are passing a state-mandated high school exit exam, according to preliminary data released this week by the state Department of Education.

Statewide, about 90 percent of the class of 2008 passed the exit exam, which tests students in sophomore-level English and eighth-grade math. And while the achievement gap between black and Latino students and white and Asian students persists, it continues to narrow ever so slightly, said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell.

"I am pleased to see a slight narrowing of the gap among first-time test-takers, but closing this gap entirely is the civil rights challenge of our time," O'Connell said Tuesday. "It is a moral imperative and an economic imperative for our students and our state economy."

The class of 2006 was the first required to pass the exam to graduate. Students have the opportunity to take the test eight times throughout high school: once as sophomores, twice as juniors and up to five times as seniors. Those who have not passed both portions of the test by the end of senior year can continue to take the exam until they are successful.

Special education students — exempt from taking the test in 2006 and 2007 — for the first time in 2008 were required to pass, with some disability advocates condemning the change but others applauding. Almost 54 percent of special education students had passed the exam as of May, a rate that O'Connell said is commendable but that education leaders need to improve.

"The (exit exam) system is pushing our schools to ensure that more students who have disabilities are given maximum access to the general education curriculum and is pushing more students to reach for a higher bar of achievement," O'Connell said.

The estimated passage rate for first-time test-takers on the English portion of the test in 2008 — 78.8 percent — is a small increase over the past three years. About 79 percent of those same students passed the math portion, a gain of more than 3 percentage points.

For the most part, local results of first-time test takers mirrored the slight gains from the state.

Castro Valley continues to solidify itself as a high-performance district as 90 percent of 10th-graders passed the math portion of the test last year, with 93 percent of 10th-graders passing the English part of the test. Both marks were improvements from the previous year's crop of sophomore students.

In San Leandro, 79 percent of sophomores tested passed the math exam — a one percent gain from a year ago — while 75 percent passed the English exam, a drop of 3 percent from the previous year.

Meanwhile, the percentage of 10th-graders passing the exit exam in San Lorenzo remained identical to passing rates in 2007, with 73 percent of sophomores passing the math test and 76 percent of first-time test takers passing the English portion.

Hayward Unified School District officials are very pleased with their results, which are still lower than county and state scores but do show improvement.

Districtwide, the number of 10th-graders who passed math went up five percentage points from the previous year, to 71 percent compared with the state's 79 percent. For English, it went up by four, to 73 percent compared to the state's 78.8 percent. In 2004, about 65 percent of 10th-grade students passed each exam.

Superintendent Dale Vigil said the gains are the result of a plan that went into effect in the 2005-06 school year.

"You have to understand that when you implement something new, it takes a few years to get going," he said. "We're very pleased with what we are seeing now."

He said the plans includes interventions and personalized attention at the high school level and increased focus on the middle schools to get kids on the right track. He also said English-language learners are now being instructed all year long.

"While it is promising to see an increase in passage rates for first time test takers in both English and math, our most important work still continues as we strive to close the achievement gap and ensure all students acquire the fundamental skills necessary to compete in today's local economy," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement Tuesday.

The data released this week does not include results from the July administration of the test, and state leaders will not have a complete analysis of how California students did last year until the fall.

The exit exam, a multiple-choice test, has remained controversial, as some criticize it as too easy while others say the English portion is too difficult for English learners. Several other states — including New York, Texas, Massachusetts and Arizona — require that seniors pass an exit exam to qualify for a diploma.

Staff writers Karen Holzmeister, Eric Kurhi, Kristofer Noceda and Gideon Rubin contributed to this report.