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Published in Print: September 7, 2005, as Calif. Special Education Students Could Get Exam Break

Calif. Special Education Students Could Get Exam Break

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California special education students who are on track to graduate next year wouldn’t have to pass the state’s high school exit exam to get their diplomas, under a settlement reached between the state and a legal-advocacy center for people with disabilities.

The agreement, reached Aug. 26, could affect about 25,000 students who have individualized education programs and have met, or are likely to meet, all other requirements for graduation.

To qualify for exemptions, students would also have to have taken the exam at least twice since sophomore year, taken it at least once during senior year, and taken remedial courses or received academic tutoring to help them do better on the two-part test in English and mathematics.

For the settlement to go into effect, however, the legislature will have to pass, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will have to sign, an amendment to state law, which now says that all students must pass the exam. State officials and the plaintiffs’ lawyers say they were confident they could get such legislation passed before the session adjourns at the end of this week. The settlement is valid for one year.

“The exit exam has focused our schools like never before on teaching to our world-class standards, and students across the state are working harder, proving that when challenged, they will rise to meet our high expectations,” state schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell, who helped negotiate the settlement, said in a press release. “However, we know that our standards-based education reforms take time to implement, particularly for students with disabilities.”

2001 Lawsuit

The lawsuit, a class action known as Chapman v. California Department of Education, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the State Board of Education, was filed in federal district court in San Francisco in 2001 by the Oakland, Calif.-based Disability Rights Association. The plaintiffs challenged the high school exit exam as invalid and as discriminatory against students with disabilities. The case was later moved to state court.

In 2004, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald M. Sabraw put the case on hold and commissioned WestEd, a regional education laboratory based in San Francisco, to do a study on the impact of the exam on students with disabilities.

The study, completed earlier this year, recommended that the exit-exam graduation requirement be delayed for at least two years.

Legislation that would actually delay the test requirement until the 2007-08 school year, unless the state allowed certain accommodations for students with disabilities, has already been introduced by Sen. Gloria Romero.

Stephen Tollafield, a staff lawyer at the Disability Rights Association, said the settlement would give the state additional “breathing room” to handle critical issues, such as giving such students the extra support they need in the classroom to pass the test, or accepting alternative assessments for students with disabilities.

“It’s not fair to deny a diploma when the student was never taught the material,” Mr. Tollafield said in a press release. His group has settled similar lawsuits in Alaska and Oregon.

Mr. O’Connell, the elected state schools chief, said he has doubts that any alternative assessment would be as challenging as the exit exam. “I continue to be concerned that permanently lowering our expectations for any group of children would consign those children to a lower-quality education,” he said.

The association acknowledged that exit-exam passing rates for students with disabilities have increased, but that as a group, they perform at the lowest level.

According to the latest state data, 54 percent of such students received passing scores on the English portion of the test, and 51 percent passed the math section. Statewide, 88 percent of students passed each section.

Vol. 25, Issue 02, Page 29

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