Law & Courts

California Court Upholds State Exit Exam

By Linda Jacobson — August 14, 2006 4 min read

In the latest ruling of a closely watched case, a California appeals court has upheld the state’s high school exit exam and has thrown out a lower court ruling that eliminated the testing hurdle for this year’s graduating class.

The Aug. 11 ruling means that the roughly 40,000 seniors in the class of 2006 who were not given diplomas as a result of failing to pass the state-mandated exit exams in mathematics and language arts still must pass those tests in order to get a high school diploma.

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell called the decision a “clear victory to students, parents, and the entire system of public education in California.”

In their decision, judges for the California Court of Appeal, First District, ruled that Alameda Superior Court Judge Robert B. Freedman overstepped his authority in May when he sided with the plaintiffs in Valenzuela v. O’Connell and granted an injunction, which suspended the exam requirement for this year’s seniors as long as they met all other graduation requirements.

“The remedy exceeded what the court had the legal authority to impose, and was otherwise overbroad in its scope,” the Aug. 11 ruling says.

Arturo J. Gonzalez, the lawyer from the San Francisco-based Morrison & Forrester firm who is representing the plaintiffs, said he plans to file a petition for review with the state supreme court.

Options Available

The appeals court said it did sympathize with the students who failed to pass both the math and language arts portions of the exam, but emphasized—as Mr. O’Connell has—that there are a variety of options remaining for those students, including enrolling in summer school or in a fifth year of high school. In fact, tonight, Mr. O’Connell was expected to attend a special graduation ceremony in Sacramento for students who passed the exam in May—too late to receive their diplomas in June with the rest of their classmates.

“The record makes clear that members of the plaintiff class have nine options available to them by which they can continue their educations and obtain either a high school diploma or a similar certificate,” the judges wrote.

But Mr. Gonzalez said that isn’t good enough for his clients.

“Our clients’ concern has always been and continues to be that they will continue to be harmed if that is the only remedy available to them,” he said in his statement. “For example, as a result of this ruling, one of our clients will be unable to attend college at California State University. In addition, the 40,000 students who have not passed the exit exam are unlikely to benefit from any remedial measure that might be implemented at this late date.”

A central piece of the plaintiffs’ argument is that resources made available to schools as part of what is known as the 2004 Williams settlement have been unequally distributed. In a brief prepared for the appeals court by Mr. Gonzalez and his associates, the plaintiffs argued that the state’s efforts to raise standards has resulted in educational inequities, especially for economically disadvantaged students.

“Plaintiffs have shown that many students in the class of 2006 failed the exit exam, despite their own diligent efforts, because the quality of the education the state provided for them was inferior,” the lawyers wrote.

But the judges implied that uneven distribution of resources shouldn’t be used as an excuse.

Instead, the exit exam, they wrote, “provides students who attend economically disadvantaged schools, but who pass the exit exam, with the ability to proclaim empirically that they possess the same academic proficiency as students from higher performing and economically more advantaged schools.”

More Improvements Needed

The court, however, also warned that the improvements made to disadvantaged schools as a result of the Williams settlement—which focused on uncredentialed teachers, a lack of textbooks, and unsafe and unclean facilities—may not be enough to give students already in high school the support they need to adequately prepare for the exit exam. The judges also suggested that lawsuits similar to the Valenzuela case could be filed if additional solutions aren’t found.

“With this in mind, we urge the parties, with the active assistance of the trial court, to step outside their ‘fog of war’ and cooperatively find the pathways necessary to provide equal and adequate access to meaningful remedial assistance to students in the class of 2007 and beyond who enter their senior year of high school with the [exit exam] hurdle still before them,” they wrote.

In his statement, Mr. O’Connell said he has “always advocated” for extra money to help students who are struggling to pass the exam.

In June, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, signed the final fiscal 2007 budget, which includes $75.1 million for supplemental instruction for students who have already failed the exam or are at risk of failing it. The funds will be used for hiring additional teachers as well as diagnostic testing that could better pinpoint where students are having the most trouble.

The budget also includes $5.5 million for purchasing instructional materials to target the needs of students struggling to pass the exam. And another $5 million is included to allow for additional administrations of the test to accommodate the needs of students who attend school at nontraditional times, such as evenings and weekends.

Mr. O’Connell is also lobbying for additional exit exam-related legislation now that the state legislature is in the final weeks of its 2006 session. Bills being considered include those that would provide additional seats in adult schools for students who did not pass the exam, additional summer and Saturday administrations of the exam, and the extension of the deadline for a college-grant program for students who pass the exam over the summer.

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