"When I found out that I failed, I cried." Jennifer Kee recalled last week as she sat in a remedial math class at Miami Northwestern High School. "I cried for almost five days every time I thought about it. Then my mama got me out of it. She told me it wasn't the end of the world, just prepare myself for the next test . . . This next time I'm going to pass."
For Jennifer Kee and thousands of other high school juniors in Florida the test that causes so much anguish is the state's new functional literacy exam.
Unlike the hundred of other exams that students take, the literacy test has a special bite. Unless students pass it - and they get at least three chances - they can't receive high school diplomas, no matter how high their grades were during 12 years of primary and secondary school.
Instead, under a state law, students who pass their courses but fail the 117-question test, will receive "certificates of attendance."
According to the state Department of Education, 36 percent of Florida's juniors failed the math part of the exam when it was first given in October, and 8 percent failed the communications part - reading and writing.
Two weeks ago the state reported that the failure rate for blacks like Jennifer Kee was 77 percent in math and 26 percent in communications. Among white students 24 percent failed math and 3 percent failed communications. Among Hispanics, a sizable group in Florida, 39 percent failed math and 7 percent failed communications, which was in English.
Students have to pass both parts of the test with at least a 70 percent grade to avoid getting attendance certificates.
"Anyone with that kind of certificate will be branded as a dummy who can't read or write or figure on even an eight-grade level," said James Burke, president of the Miami chapter of the NAACP. "How are they ever going to get a job? You know, a kid who is black and comes from a lower socioeconomic class has some heavy strikes against him without adding this."
But to Ralph Turlington, Florida's education commissioner, giving students a high school diploma if they haven't mastered the basic skills covered by the test means they will be getting "a Wizard of Oz diploma that's not going to help them."
"The Wizard of Oz presented things to people too," Turlington said. "But then he told them it was all humbug . . . If a student gets a diploma without having those skills, he can't get much of a job or he can't hold on to it. It's not having those skills that really hurts people, not whether they have the diploma.
"Right now it's more blacks who are having this problem," Turlington said. "They need help, not something from the Wizard of Oz."
Florida's new literacy test is part of a nationwide trend to try to raise academic standards by ensuring that students have mastered certain basic skills before they can graduate from high school.
So far 31 states - including Maryland and Virginia - have adopted some sort of minimum competency requirement for high school graduates in addition to the usual required courses.
But according to the Education Commission of the States, Florida is the only state that has begun giving a statewise test to enforce its standard. In all the others, standards are set by local districts or statewide tests have not yet been developed.
The first round of Florida's literacy test, which covers reading, writing, and arithmetic at approximately the eighth-grade level, was given in October to 110,000 high school juniors. For the 634 percent who passed both parts, that was it.
For the 37 percent who didn't - about 40,700 youngsters - there began a regiment of remedial classes to prepare for retests next fall and spring. If students still don't pass by then, they won't get the diplomas when they finish their senior year in the spring of 1979.
THe communications part of the exam, which 8 percent of the students failed, includes questions on such skills as finding the main idea in a paragraph, writing a check, filling out an application and distinguishing fact from opinion.
The math part, which 36 percent failed, is composed of word problems that deal with practical situations such as figuring discounts and sales taxes, calculating the time between two events, making change and figuring weights and the area of rectangles.
Students may take as much time as they want to finish the multiple choice test. Most are done in about two hours.
"We had committees of educators and parents throughout the state to help pick the skills that people really need to get by in life," said Kenneth Loewe, director of test development for the Florida education department. "It's really a rather minimal kind of test."
But to Jennifer Kee the math part was hard even though she has all A's in her courses this year (including algebra) at Northwestern High, an all-black school in a low-income part of the city.
"A lot of students on the honor roll here failed the test," Kee said. "It's kind of shock having our diplomas at stake like this."
After the state reported the high failure rate for blacks, some groups, including the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, charged that parts of the test were culturally biased.
Burke said the groups also asked that the requirement for students to pass the exam before they can get a diploma be delayed until 1981, when the current crop of high school freshmen is scheduled to graduate.
If the Florida legislature doesn't vote to delay the test requirement, Burke said the NAACP will sue to stop it.
But Turlington strongly opposes any delay, saying it would produce a loss of momentum and a "loss of credibility" with students now in remedial programs.
How high standards should be on high school graduation exams and whether states will stick to standards if large numbers of students fail are at the heart of the debate on the competency test.
In February the New York State Board of Regents withheld approval of a proposed minimum competency exam for high school graduation because its questions were too easy. They included asking students to tell the time on a clock reading 1:35 and to state how many pennies there are in $4.
Last month a prestigious panel of researchers established by the National Academy of Education recommended against having a statewide or national test requirement because so many students would fail a respectable test that it would be "politically impossible" to maintain it.
If the standard were low enough to prevent widespread failure, the panel said it would be "meaningless" and might only encourage a further decline in academic achievement.
"Florida set its standards on the basis of what people need to function in society," Turlington said, "not on what percentage would pass."
Both Turlington and Burke suggested that the main reason blacks scored relatively low was their generally low socio-economic level.
Burke added that white teachers in integrated schools, which are widespread in florida, generally have low expectations for their black students.
"A lot of liberal teachers want to make up for past discrimination," Burke remarked. "'I know he's a good kid, so I'll pass him,' they say, 'even if he isn't doing much in class.' For a long time that's been one of those open secrets. Now we just can't go along with it any longer."
Joseph M. Carroll, school superintendent of Palm Beach County, said black parents also may expect too little and may not give enough stress to academic work.
"That's what Jesse Jackson is saying," Carroll said. "He can do it better than I can, but it must be said . . . It has to be our target to equalize black and white achievement in our schools."
Throughout Florida remedial classes were set up at the start of the spring term in January to help students who failed the state literacy test. Their teachers and aides are being paid for by a special $10 million appropriation from the legislature, which has promised $26.5 million for the classes next year.
Principals at several schools in Dade and Palm Beach counties said the classes were well attended. Yet the remedial work, for teaching that normally begins as early as second grade, often moves slowly.
Barbara Haynes, a remedial math teacher at Palm Beach Gardens High School, said only about a quarter of the students in her classes passed a mid-term exam last week. A few, she said, had trouble with subtraction and long division. Many more had difficulty with fractions and word problems.
"It's hard for these students to catch up when they are so far behind," Haynes said, "no matter what pressures we put on them."