Seniors Wait for Final Word in Calif. Exit-Exam Case

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Nearly 50,000 students who have not passed California’s high school exit exam remained in a state of uncertainty last week as education officials pressed on with their appeal of a judge’s decision to eliminate the exam as a graduation requirement for the class of 2006.

The case has drawn national attention, as 18 other states require students to pass an exam to earn a diploma, and an additional seven will have such requirements by 2012.

Across California last week, school districts were preparing for two scenarios: First, the test won’t be required, and second, the test might required again by the time graduation ceremonies begin in a couple of weeks.

“At this time, just to be prepared, we are having diplomas prepared for all of our students,” said Victoria Webber, the executive secretary to the superintendent of the 31,000-student Orange Unified School District, where most graduation ceremonies are scheduled for June 15. If a new ruling before then upholds the exam requirement, seniors who haven’t passed it will receive a “certificate of completion,” she added.

‘Pressure’s Off’

In his May 12 ruling, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Robert B. Freedman lifted the test hurdle for this year’s graduating seniors as long as they have met all other requirements for a diploma. His decision indicated his agreement with the plaintiffs in the case Valenzuela v. O’Connell, who argue that students who have failed the test—especially English-language learners—have not had a fair chance to learn the material because they were more likely than others to attend overcrowded schools and have unqualified teachers.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, who has stood firm on the exam requirement, asked the judge to grant an immediate stay of the ruling. Judge Freedman denied the request.

Lawyers for the state education department were poised late last week to file an appeal of the decision rejecting a stay, as well as of the preliminary injunction itself, to the California Supreme Court.

Even though he knows the situation could change quickly, Cesar Sanchez, a senior at the 1,100-student James Lick High School in San Jose who has not yet passed the math portion of the exam, said he was relieved by Judge Freedman’s decision.

“I was happy. I thought, ‘Finally the pressure’s off,’ ” said Mr. Sanchez, who wants to study law in college. He was still waiting to receive the results of the most recent administration of the test to determine whether he actually needed to worry about the appeal.

Meanwhile, Judge Freedman last week dismissed a separate lawsuit that also challenges the exit test, but instead argues that the state failed to explore alternatives to requiring students to pass the test within the time frame required by law.

Officials with Californians for Justice, a statewide advocacy organization and the plaintiff in that case, said they planned to appeal the May 16 ruling in Californians for Justice v. O’Connell and the California State Board of Education. They said they were encouraged, though, by the judge’s ruling in the Valenzuela case.

National Reaction

Many national experts in education policy are watching the situation in California with concern.

“There are no winners in this case,” said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve Inc., a Washington-based group that is working with states to raise the academic rigor of high schools. “The kids who will get a high school diploma [as a result of the court ruling] … are not going to be any better prepared than they were last week.”

Half of all the nation’s high school students are enrolled in the 19 states—including California—that require students to pass an exit exam, according to the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy group.

Seven other states are scheduled to have exit exams by 2012. If they all do so, an estimated 72 percent of public school students will have to pass at least one exam to graduate from high school.

Some observers see the California litigation as part of an ongoing process to better prepare high school students for college and work rather than an effort to lower the bar for graduation.

Judge Freedman’s Valenzuela decision reflects similar legal and political hurdles that exit exams face before they become a permanent part of state policy, according to Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, which has tracked the impact of graduation-exam policies.

“This is just another battle in the war to raise academic standards,” said Mr. Jennings, a former aide to House Democrats in Congress.

States often delay the implementation of exit exams because they realize they don’t have the policies and practices in place to ensure students can pass them.

In Arizona, for example, the state originally planned to require the class of 2001 to pass an exit exam, but officials have delayed full implementation until this year.

Even after the delay, the state faced a lawsuit saying it doesn’t offer all high school students the educational opportunity to pass the exam. On May 15, a state judge denied the plaintiffs’ motion in that case to award diplomas to students who have failed the Arizona exam, pending a trial in the case in July.

Mr. Jennings added that trial judges’ decisions are unlikely to end the legal debate in either Arizona or California. Such cases almost always are appealed to the state’s highest courts, which have tended to back exit-exam policies, he said.

The question in California, Mr. Jennings said, is whether the state will address the inequities that plaintiffs cite in their lawsuit.

Making Plans

The ruling in the Valenzuela casepotentially affects more than 46,000 seniors throughout California who have not passed both the mathematics and English/ language arts portions of the exit exam.

About 5,000 of those students attend schools in the 727,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District. In the 135,000-student San Diego city school system, 960 out of about 7,600 seniors, or 12.6 percent, have not passed both sections of the exam.

As in the Orange Unified district, San Diego officials have settled on a plan for handling graduation ceremonies if Judge Freedman’s ruling stands.

“We’re preparing diplomas for everybody, and there will be a separate certificate for those who have passed the exam,” said Steven Baratte, a spokesman for the San Diego district. “It’s been relatively calm, but people have been calling to see what [the ruling] means. Parents are making plans.”

If the judicial tide turns in the state’s favor, he said, the district will still allow everyone in the class to take part in the graduation ceremonies and to participate in other senior activities. “We don’t want to keep going back and forth,” Mr. Baratte said, adding that the diplomas aren’t handed out at the ceremonies anyway.

Some education leaders were angry at the prospect that the exam requirement might be lifted.

“California has already delayed the exit exam for two years,” San Diego Superintendent Carl Cohn said in a statement. “It’s time to get on with it.”

Other officials argue that it’s more than a matter of just asking students to try harder.

Some students are “passing the math exam with flying colors,” said Dave Brown, a school board member for the 32,000-student West Contra Costa Unified district, who proposed last month to let district seniors who have not passed both portions of the exam receive diplomas by showing mastery of the curriculum in other ways.

The board defeated his plan on a 4-1 vote.

Five of the six students named as plaintiffs in the Valenzuela lawsuit are enrolled in the West Contra Costa district. Mr. Brown called them “very articulate, bright kids.” He said he was “very proud of them for having taken a courageous stand,” and for challenging “the notion that every child is getting an equal and adequate education.”

PHOTO: Richmond High School students Liliana Valenzuela, second from left, and Noemi Acosta, far right, are escorted out of Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland, Calif., with their lawyer, Chris Young, behind, on May 9. The students are plaintiffs in a legal challenge to the state's graduation exam.
—Nick Lammers/The Oakland Tribune/AP

Vol. 25, Issue 38, Pages 22, 26

Published in Print: May 24, 2006, as Seniors Wait for Final Word in Calif. Exit-Exam Case
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