College & Workforce Readiness

California Diploma Bungle: San Francisco Board Goes ‘Rogue’ to Rescue Students

By Catherine Gewertz — August 17, 2015 3 min read
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The San Francisco Board of Education has tossed state law out the window and written its own graduation rules in order to save 107 students who couldn’t get their diplomas because of a state mistake.

In an emergency meeting Aug. 14, the board rewrote its graduation requirements, which mandate that students pass California’s exit exam in order to earn diplomas. Instead, in a unanimous Friday night vote, it dropped the exam from its requirements for the class of 2015, allowing it to hand out diplomas to the students who had been denied them because of a state contracting bungle.

San Francisco board members knew that their new rule flies in the face of state law requiring that students pass the exit exam, the CAHSEE, by the time they graduate. But they said they did what they thought was necessary to keep students from being victimized by the state’s mistake, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

“This is a problem wholly created by the state of California,” said board member Jill Wynns, as reported by the Chronicle’s Jill Tucker. “I’m just proud we’re fixing something for our students.”

Gov. Jerry Brown and state Board of Education President Michael Kirst issued a statement of their own.

“Students who have been accepted into college should not be prevented from starting class this fall because of a test cancellation they could not control,” they said, according to the Chronicle. “The administration is working with the legislature to resolve the problem and ensure these students begin their college careers.”

The San Francisco board called the meeting because dozens of their students were seeing their plans to enroll in college, job training or the military suddenly derailed without diplomas. Thousands of students all over the state were in a similar bind.

The problem originated with a collision of politics and contracting. Senate Bill 172 has been moving through the state legislature, and it would suspend the exit exam for three years while the state mulls other ways to assess mastery of high school-level skills. Since lawmakers appeared to be heading in the direction of cancelling the exit exam, the state let its $11 million-per-year exit-exam contract with ETS lapse in May, according to EdSource.

The trouble with that, however, is that students are typically given one last chance, in July, to take the CAHSEE. When the test was suspended, that July chance evaporated.

Figuring out how many students were affected isn’t easy. The state department of education doesn’t have a count of how many students were planning to take the July administration of the test, since the contract was canceled, so the electronic mechanism allowing districts to submit signups to the vendor wasn’t working, said state department spokeswoman Pam Slater.

But the July administration numbers for the exit exam in 2014 give us a ballpark sense of how many students could be in diploma purgatory right about now: Last July, there were 4,847 math tests given and 5,826 English/language arts tests given, Slater said.

State Superintendent of Education Tom Torlakson issued a statement saying that the CAHSEE contract was allowed to lapse because it doesn’t reflect the state’s common-core standards, and because of SB 172, which will allow students to graduate without the exit exam. He called on higher-education officials to help ensure that students who were denied diplomas because of the contract lapse don’t lose the chance to enroll in the colleges that accepted them.

“No student’s dream of a college education should be delayed because of an anomaly,” Torlakson said. “That’s why I am working closely with college administrators and the legislature to remedy the situation and help these students stay on track for college.”

The California Department of Education is working with the legislature to pass legislation that would suspend the exit-exam requirement for the next three years because the exam does not reflect the new state academic standards being taught in schools. Senate Bill 172 has been making its way through the legislative process all year, and if it is approved and signed, students can then get a diploma without passing the exit exam.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.