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California Court Rejects Request for Quick Action; Exit Exam Remains in Place for 2006

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The lawsuit over California’s exit exam won’t be settled before this year’s high school graduation ceremonies are held. That means students who have not passed both sections of the exam will not receive diplomas this June.

In the latest twist of a closely watched lawsuit, the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco has turned down a request for an expedited hearing from the lawyers representing the five students named in Valenzuela v. O’Connell.

“This is a most welcome decision,” state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell said Friday in a press release. Mr. O’Connell has stood firm on the exit-exam requirement. “School districts throughout California now have certainty, and should proceed with graduation exercises for the class of 2006 as planned before the exit exam was challenged in court.”

Arturo J. Gonzalez, the lawyer with the San Francisco-based firm Morrison & Forrester who brought the lawsuit against the state, had asked the appellate court for a hearing this week. But for now, written briefs from the plaintiffs won’t be due until June 13, and oral arguments won’t be heard until July 25. High school commencement exercises for 2006 will be over by then.

Diplomas Possible?

Mr. Gonzalez said in a statement last week that if the court finds in favor of the plaintiffs—and upholds a decision by a lower-court judge to lift the exam requirement—seniors who have not passed both the mathematics and language arts portions of the exam might still be awarded diplomas later in the summer.

On May 12, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Robert B. Freedman granted the plaintiffs an injunction allowing all seniors to receive diplomas this year, whether or not they’ve passed the exam. Mr. O’Connell, the state schools chief, asked Judge Freedman to issue a stay of his decision, but he denied the request.

Judge Freedman agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that students who have not passed the test—especially English-language learners—have not had an equal opportunity to learn the material because they are more likely to attend overcrowded schools and have less-than-qualified teachers.

Mr. O’Connell appealed both the denial of the stay as well as the injunction to the California Supreme Court. Last week, the high court granted the stay but sent the case down to the appellate court for consideration of the merits of the plaintiffs’ arguments.

"We intend to vigorously defend Judge Freedman's ruling,” Mr. Gonzalez said in his statement. “The record strongly supports his decision. Therefore, we think there is a strong chance that students in the class of 2006 will receive their diplomas, even if it is after commencement ceremonies. It is important that students not get discouraged. They have to stay in school and pass their classes."

His office also encouraged parents to ask their local school officials to allow students who have not met the exam requirement to participate in the ceremonies. Many districts have already said that students will be able to join their classmates during the ceremonies, but that they will receive certificates of completion instead of diplomas.

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