Law & Courts

California High Court Reinstates Graduation-Exam Requirement, for Now

By Linda Jacobson — May 25, 2006 3 min read
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High school seniors in California are once again required to pass the state’s exit exam to receive a diploma this year. A divided California Supreme Court voted Wednesday to place a stay on a trial judge’s decision earlier this month that lifted the exam requirement.

“School districts can continue their graduation exercises as planned before this litigation began,” state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell said during a conference call with reporters following the much-anticipated ruling.

Since May 12, when Alameda County Superior Court Judge Robert B. Freedman granted the plaintiffs in Valenzuela v. O’Connell their request for an injunction and suspended the exam requirement, many districts have been preparing to issue diplomas to all seniors, whether or not they’ve passed the exam.

It is now up to local school districts to decide whether students who have not passed both the mathematics and language arts portions of the exam will be allowed to “walk” during this year’s graduation ceremonies, Mr. O’Connell said.

In the 742,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, the reinstatement of the exam means that students who have not passed, but have met all other requirements for graduation, will receive “a certificate of completion of course credits and requirements” instead of a diploma.

Case Sent to Appeals Court

The supreme court also sent the case to the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco and directed it to “establish a schedule for expedited briefing and argument” on the merits of the Valenzuela case.

The supreme court’s seven justices were not unanimous. One voted to send the case to the lower court, but opposed the stay. Two of the justices voted against both those steps.

Regarding Judge Freedman’s ruling, the justices wrote that they weren’t persuaded that his decision “would be an appropriate remedy even if plaintiffs were to prevail in their underlying claims.”

Judge Freedman agreed with the plaintiffs that California’s high school exit exam is discriminatory because students who have not passed it—especially English-language learners—have not had the same opportunity as other students to learn the material, since they are more likely to attend overcrowded schools and have teachers lacking proper credentials. He also said students face a “significant risk of harm” if they have to remain in “an already stressed district” for a fifth year so they can earn a diploma when they would otherwise be admitted to college.

Mr. O’Connell, the state schools chief, said he considered the high court’s decision “a clear victory—not a victory for me, but a victory for public education.” And he said he was glad the state would now have an opportunity to argue “the merits of the case” before the appeals court.

Marsha Bedwell, the lead counsel for the California Department of Education, said she didn’t know how soon the appellate court would hear arguments in the case. But she also said that she expected the stay to remain in place through this year’s graduations, which begin across the state as early as the first week of June.

When the state superintendent’s office filed its appeal as well as its request for a stay with the California Supreme Court last week, lawyers for the state acknowledged the possibility that the case might be sent to the appellate level. But Mr. O’Connell said he filed with the supreme court first because he was looking for “ultimate resolution.” And Douglas Press, a supervising deputy attorney general for the state, said the case certainly fit the supreme court’s criteria of having “statewide importance.”

Options for Students

In his comments yesterday, Mr. O’Connell urged students who have not yet passed both sections of the exam to sign up for summer school, explore online options, and even consider taking a fifth year of high school.

But he added that the current figure of more than 46,000 students who have not passed is expected to change soon, when the education department receives results from the most recent administrations of the exam, in March and earlier this month.

Arturo J. Gonzalez, the lawyer for the five students who sued the state over the exam, did not immediately return calls for comment.

But Public Advocates Inc., a San Francisco-based law firm that represents plaintiffs in a second case challenging the exam, released a statement saying Mr. O’Connell’s appeal “has created chaos where there was clarity. Now the court of appeals will have to decide the appropriateness of the injunction before students graduate.”

Meanwhile, Public Advocates has filed an emergency appeal with the state supreme court for its client, Californians for Justice, a nonprofit organization with offices throughout the state. Judge Freedman dismissed that case on May 16.

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