Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Judge strikes down High School Exit Exam

JUDGE SAYS CALIFORNIA EXIT EXAM IS UNFAIR
Final ruling today could halt plans to deny diplomas
- Nanette Asimov, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 9, 2006

A judge in Oakland struck down California's controversial high school exit exam Monday, issuing a tentative ruling suggesting the test is unfair to some students who are shortchanged by substandard schools.

If finalized, the unexpected ruling would block the state from carrying out its plan to deny diplomas for the first time to tens of thousands of seniors who have been unable to pass the exit exam.

Judge Robert Freedman of Alameda County Superior Court said he based his ruling on the concept of "equal protection" and is expected to make a final ruling at a 2 p.m. hearing today.

His ruling comes just weeks before graduation ceremonies begin at 1,129 California high schools and just days after state schools Superintendent Jack O'Connell announced that 46,768 seniors -- 10.7 percent of the class of 2006 -- had not yet passed the exit exam. Of those students, 61 percent are poor, and 44 percent are English learners.

Many of them, such as Iris Padilla, a senior at Richmond High in the West Contra Costa Unified School district, have been watching their graduating classmates with envy. Earlier Monday, before the ruling, she was in tears when asked by a reporter whether she planned to attend her prom on May 19.

"How am I going to enjoy myself and celebrate graduation if I'm not going to get a diploma?" asked Iris, who is passing all classes with the help of Spanish-speaking teachers and classmates.

But everything changed a few hours later when news of the tentative ruling hit the student grapevine.

"Wow! How? This is so good!" Iris laughed and laughed and laughed some more.

O'Connell, who wrote the exit exam legislation in 1999 when he was a state senator and has called it a cornerstone of his school reform efforts, wasn't laughing.

"Recognizing that today's ruling is not final, I intend to do everything in my power to ensure that at the end of the legal day we maintain the integrity of the high school exit exam," O'Connell said. He noted that independent research has shown that the exit exam has actually led more students to buckle down to try to pass the test, and that struggling students have more access to tutoring than in the past.

California's high school exit exam also carries strong support among voters and the business community -- future employers of today's high school students -- who share O'Connell's view that a diploma should indicate a basic level of academic skill.

The exit exam tests 7th- to 10th-grade English, math and algebra skills. In all, 389,600 seniors have passed the test, although it is not clear how many have completed all their other graduation requirements.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he was "disappointed" at the tentative ruling and said that "delaying the exam's implementation does a disservice to our children by depriving us of the best tool we have to make sure schools are performing as they should be."

But attorney Arturo Gonzalez of the San Francisco law firm Morrison & Foerster, who brought the lawsuit challenging the exam, said he was thrilled with the judge's tentative ruling.

"I felt strongly that the state should not deprive a student of a diploma unless the state can say that every student has been fairly and properly prepared for that test," Gonzalez said. "There is overwhelming evidence that students throughout the state have not been taught the material on the test. And many students have been taught by teachers not credentialed in math and English."

Gonzalez said he filed the suit after reading news reports last fall that about 100,000 seniors were poised to be denied a diploma. (The number has since dropped by more than half because many students eventually passed the exam, while others were exempted by a separate lawsuit on behalf of students with disabilities.)

On Feb. 8, Gonzalez sued the state in an 11th-hour attempt to block the exit exam altogether.

Earlier attempts to ban the test failed because, until now, no students were on the brink of being denied a diploma.

The suit, Valenzuela vs. California, was named for its lead plaintiff, Liliana Valenzuela, who, like Iris Padilla, is a Richmond High senior. According to the suit, Liliana maintains a 3.84 grade-point average and is 12th in her senior class of 413 students. She has passed the math portion of the exam, but not the English portion. Her first language is Spanish.

The suit said that students who have repeatedly failed the test -- especially English learners -- have not had a fair opportunity to learn the material because they are more likely to attend overcrowded schools and have teachers without proper credentials.

In his tentative ruling, Freedman said he was inclined to agree with that argument but will give the state's lawyers a chance to persuade him to change his opinion. However, Freedman may have signaled a reluctance to reverse himself when he asked lawyers on both sides to come prepared to talk about how conditions in the schools can be equalized.

He also asked the students' lawyers to explain what it will take to make the exit exam fair for future classes.

As for Iris Padilla of Richmond High, asked again whether she'll go to the prom, she smiled and said, "Si."

E-mail Nanette Asimov at nasimov@sfchronicle.com.


Not passed

Estimated number of California high school seniors
who had not passed the exit exam by March 1, excluding special education
students:

All students: 46,768
Asian:
2,374
Hispanic: 29,899
African American: 6,298
White: 5,712
English learners: 20,629
Economically disadvantaged: 28,359

Source: California Department of Education

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