Camden's academic champs are feted 115 high school seniors dined and won praise for passing the graduation test on their first try.

Posted: November 22, 2002

CHERRY HILL — It was a celebration fit for a championship sports team, where the only things missing were a band and a parade.

The Camden school system yesterday honored 115 seniors from its four high schools who are members of an elite group in South Jersey's largest district: They passed the state's new high school graduation test on their first attempt last spring.

Students received their scores on the exams, which are given in math and language, in September.

"It's a big relief just to know you passed it the first time," said Eric Gonzalez, 17, a senior at the Charles Brimm Medical Arts High School.

For their accomplishments, the seniors were treated yesterday to a two-hour luncheon-turned-academic pep rally at Cherry Hill's Holiday Inn, where they were lavished with accolades, speeches and certificates.

"A lot of people put our students down," said Tania Sime, 17, a drama major at Creative Arts High School. "They don't recognize that we have bright and outstanding students who want to succeed in life."

Along with their success came a sobering statistic: More than 300 Camden seniors - about three in four - flunked the test, which they must pass in order to graduate.

The test should not be the only measure of student achievement, said Delphine Davis, 17, a visual arts major at Creative Arts who passed.

"Not everyone is a good test-taker," Davis said. "People learn differently. Statistics shouldn't be everything."

Woodrow Wilson High School senior Chanell Still, 17, said she believes the test is necessary to make sure students learn. "Too many students are getting out of school today who can't read."

District officials said additional help will be given to students who failed. The test was administered last month to those who flunked one or both sections and will be given again next spring.

In a district where success is measured in small steps, yesterday was a time to celebrate. The Camden school system has been plagued in recent years by mismanagement, poor test scores and the highest dropout rate in the state.

"Even though we don't have a large number, you still have to recognize those who passed," said Delia Brown, the district's director of curriculum and instruction.

Tynisa Williams, of Creative Arts, received a $500 savings bond, movie passes and a bookstore gift certificate as the only Camden student to score more than 250 points in the math and language sections to qualify as advanced proficient. (A minimum passing score is 200.)

"Oh my gosh! I'm really honored by all of this," Williams, 18, an aspiring engineer, said happily.

Statewide, about 49,500 students - 66 percent of the 75,000 who took the test in March - passed both sections.

Test scores were released to districts in August, but district-by-district summaries probably will not be released until early next year, according to the state Department of Education. Camden is among the first to make its results public.

For most students, the math section posed the biggest difficulty: 27 percent, more than 20,000 statewide, flunked that portion. They fared better in English, with more than 62,000 passing that section.

In Camden, many students are lagging in math skills when they enter high school, making it difficult to prepare them for the test, said Alphonso Jones, a math teacher at Creative Arts.

"The middle schools aren't preparing kids for high school," Jones said. "We're fighting to bring them up, and it's a struggle."

Known as the High School Proficiency Assessment, or HSPA, the test was given over a three-day period. It includes multiple choice and essay questions. Students start taking the test in their junior year and get two more chances at it in their senior year.

State officials have said they were pleased with the first-year results. The test replaced the High School Proficiency Test.

Some Camden students were surprised by the attention yesterday, which is most frequently bestowed upon Camden's standout athletes, especially in basketball and football.

"I never knew that they honored anything with academics," said Tamika Faison, 17, Camden High School valedictorian. "I thought it was always about the athletes."

Contact Melanie Burney at 856-779-3876 or mburney@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Toni Callas contributed to this article.

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