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Published in Print: June 7, 2006, as Latest Decision Keeps Calif. Exit-Exam Law As Graduations Near

Latest Decision Keeps Calif. Exit-Exam Law as Graduations Near

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The legal roller-coaster ride is over, at least for now, for California high school seniors who have not passed the state’s exit exam.

The First District Court of Appeal, in San Francisco, turned down a request late last month for an expedited hearing from the lawyers representing the five students named in the case, Valenzuela v. O’Connell.

That means the lawsuit won’t be settled before this year’s high school graduation ceremonies are held, and students who have not passed both the mathematics and language arts sections of the exam won’t be receiving diplomas this month.

State schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell, who has stood firm on the exit-exam requirement, praised the court’s decision, saying it gives school districts the certainty they need to proceed with graduation exercises as they were planned before the exit exam was challenged in court earlier this year.

Mr. O’Connell also announced that an additional 4,542 students had passed both sections of the exam after taking the test in March, bringing the percentage of high school seniors who have met the exit-exam requirement to 90.4 percent. That leaves roughly 41,700 seniors across California who have not passed the test in time to receive diplomas this month.

“These students are still welcome and part of the public school family; … each student will continue to have opportunities to receive their high school diploma,” Mr. O’Connell said during a June 1 news conference at John Burroughs High School in Burbank. 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 to hold a hearing last 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.

Show of Defiance

While California educators and students were adjusting to the latest turn of events last week, the school board of the 48,000-student Oakland Unified School District voted May 31 to defy state law and the court and said it would issue diplomas to its 140 seniors who haven’t passed the exit exam.

Mr. O’Connell, the state schools chief—who appointed state Administrator Randolph Ward to run the bankrupt district and who has legal authority over the Oakland schools—said the board’s vote was meaningless. The school board was stripped of its decisionmaking powers when the state took control of the district in 2003.

“If there’s one district that is not going to do that, it’s Oakland,” Mr. O’Connell said at the news conference in Burbank. “I am running that school district.”

Elsewhere, districts were left to decide how to handle graduation ceremonies, which begin as early as next week, for students who haven’t pass the exam.

In the 742,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, students who have not passed both sections of the exit test, but have met all other requirements for graduation, will be able to participate in their schools’ graduation ceremonies. But instead of a diploma, they’ll receive a “certificate of course credits and requirements.”

Mr. Gonzalez, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, also has encouraged parents statewide to ask their local school officials to allow students who have not passed the exit exam to take part in such ceremonies.

In a possible further twist, Mr. Gonzalez said in a May 26 statement that if the appellate court finds in favor of his clients and upholds a lower-court judge’s decision lifting the requirement, seniors who have not passed both portions of the exam might still be awarded diplomas later this summer.

Vol. 25, Issue 39, Page 25

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