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Supreme Court Turns Down N.Y. Case On Use of Exit Tests for Handicapped

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Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court last week turned down a New York school district's request that it rule on the state's use of competency tests as a graduation requirement for handicapped students.

Without comment, the Justices declined to review a ruling by the state's highest court that all students--including the handicapped--must demonstrate proficiency on the test in order to receive high-school diplomas and that students were given adequate notice to prepare for the examinations. (See Education Week, Nov. 2, 1983.)

In 1976, the state Board of Regents adopted a resolution requiring students to pass the test as a prerequisite for receiving a diploma. The new standard went into effect with the class of 1979.

The case, Board of Education of the Northport-East Northport Union Free School District v. Ambach (Case No. 83-1183), stemmed from a school board's decision in 1979 to award high-school diplomas to two handicapped students who failed all or part of the state examination. After learning of this action, the state commissioner of education, Gordon M. Ambach, ordered that the diplomas be revoked.

A trial judge ruled in favor of the students, holding that the commissioner's demand and the regulations upon which it was based violated the Due-Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.

But an intermediate court reversed that ruling, stating that the students had no property right to a diploma nor any right to be free from the stigma of being denied one. The state, it said, "has legitimate reasons for setting diploma standards in order to protect and insure the integrity" of high-school diplomas. The state's highest court affirmed that opinion.

'Myriad Deprivations'

"The denial of a diploma to a handicapped student, due to failure of the competency tests, results in myriad deprivations," the school district unsuccessfully argued in its petition for review.

"When the diploma is denied to handicapped students, based on the state's finding of 'incompetency,' their lives are affected in a demeaning, traumatic, and stigmatizing manner."

Furthermore, the district said, denial of a diploma "effectively forecloses" gainful employment. Finally, because of the requirement, handicapped students "anticipate failure on the tests ... and drop out of school."

The state, however, countered in its brief in the case that "although each student in New York State has a statutory right to a free elementary and secondary education at public expense, it does not follow that each student also has a property right to a diploma."

Although the two students named in the case had successfully completed their individualized educational programs, "there is no basis upon which to equate that achievement with the attainments required for high-school graduation," it argued.

Lawrence McNally, director of pupil services for the Northport district, said he was disappointed by the Supreme Court's decision not to review the case.

"In essence, the decision basically gives the state the legal right to discriminate against pupils with handicapping conditions," he said. "The courts totally have ignored the fact that the vast majority of children who fail to get diplomas are pupils with handicapping conditions."

But Lawrence C. Gloeckler, acting state assistant commissioner of education for children with handicapping conditions, said that "our position as a state is not that we are denying diplomas to handicapped children."

"First of all, many handicapped students get diplomas," he said. "That's something that gets lost in this debate. We believe that the majority of our handicapped children can meet the requirement."--tm

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