College & Workforce Readiness

Calif. Judge Throws Out Exit-Exam Requirement

By Linda Jacobson — May 15, 2006 5 min read
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Setting off a legal scramble just weeks before the end of the school year, a superior court judge in Alameda County, Calif., ruled Friday that this year’s high school seniors don’t have to pass the state’s exit exam to receive a diploma.

Judge Robert B. Freedman agreed with the plaintiffs in Valenzuela v. O’Connell 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. The ruling potentially affects more than 46,000 seniors who have yet to pass both the mathematics and English language arts portions of the exam.

“There is evidence in the record that shows that students in economically challenged communities have not had an equal opportunity to learn the materials tested on the [California High School Exit Exam], that some schools have yet to fully align their curriculums to the state’s content standards, and that demonstrates that the negative effects of scarcity of resources continue to fall disproportionately on English-language learners,” the judge wrote in his decision.

As expected, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell—who has stood firm on the exam requirement—said he would appeal the ruling. He also asked the judge on Friday to grant an immediate stay of his ruling, but Judge Freedman denied that request. Therefore, lawyers for the state education department will appeal the request for a stay this week as they appeal the preliminary injunction itself.

“I’m greatly disappointed in today’s court decision,” the superintendent said during a teleconference. Mr. O’Connell, who wrote the 1999 law creating the test requirement, said he also counted the decision as a personal disappointment. But more importantly, he said, the ruling was “bad news for California students who have worked hard to pass the exit exam.”

Earlier this month, Mr. O’Connell announced that almost 11 percent of this year’s seniors—46,768—had yet to pass the exam. Those numbers were down, however, from February, when almost 48,000 still had not received passing scores. And the current numbers, he said Friday, still don’t reflect two more recent administrations of the test.

Students do not have any more chances this school year to pass the exam in time to graduate.

Creating Chaos?

The judge’s decision, Mr. O’Connell said, also creates “chaos” in school districts across the state with schools preparing for graduation ceremonies and finalizing transcripts, and students trying to determine whether to enroll in summer school remediation courses, take the summer administration of the exam, or even plan on attending college in the fall. That is why he is seeking the stay.

Even the state budget could potentially be affected by the uncertainty, Mr. O’Connell said, because Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced on Friday that his newest budget recommendations for fiscal 2007 include $65 million for additional supplemental instruction for students at risk of failing the exam. But if the graduation test is not required, he suggested that the money might be taken out of the budget.

Mr. O’Connell said he would be sending school districts a memo to keep them up to date on the developments.

Across the state, district officials responded to the ruling. In a statement, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Roy Romer urged “all high school seniors in the [district] to continue with their studies and coursework toward graduation. We look forward to the state and the courts resolving this issue as quickly as possible.”

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs also argue that the state failed to research possible alternatives to the exit exam and give the legislature the opportunity to consider them, as the law required. It wasn’t until last December that Mr. O’Connell held a public hearing on other possible measures of achievement, and then in January concluded that there were “no practical alternatives.”

Ruling Expected in Separate Case

Another issue raised in the case was whether the existing $20 million in state money for exam tutoring was unfairly distributed because the money was only handed out to schools where 28 percent of the students had already failed the exam. Based on that formula, students in 166 school districts did not benefit from that funding.

Mr. O’Connell, however, said that all schools are required to provide students with tutoring opportunities.

Meanwhile, Judge Freedman was expected to rule Monday on a separate lawsuit over the graduation test filed by Californians for Justice, an advocacy organization based in Oakland.

The complaint makes allegations that are similar to those in the Valenzuela v. O’Connell case, but stresses that the superintendent and the state board of education did not act to explore alternatives to requiring that students pass the test within the time frame required by the law.

“The kids of California ought not to be denied an alternative because the superintendent was late with his homework,” said John Affeldt, a managing attorney at Public Advocates Inc., the San Francisco-based public interest law firm representing Californians for Justice.

Californians for Justice also issued a statement expressing its delight with Judge Freedman’s ruling. “Californians for Justice agrees with Judge Robert Freedman that the High School Exit Exam unfairly and illegally punishes tens of thousands of students who attend substandard schools in California. Our legal system is a last resort in addressing injustice, and today’s decision honors that role.”

In a settlement reached last year between the state and Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit law center in Berkeley, Calif., about 25,000 students with disabilities, who have an individualized education program and have met all other requirements for graduation, are exempted from the testing requirement this school year.

The settlement was also reflected in a law signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in January. The one-year reprieve was designed to give the state time to strengthen efforts to prepare students with special needs for the exam.

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