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Appeals Court Upholds Exit Exam

Times Staff Writer

A state appeals court Friday upheld California’s high school exit exam, rejecting claims by students that they will be irreparably harmed if their diplomas are withheld.

The decision leaves in place -- for the time being -- California’s first statewide testing requirement for high school seniors, which had been years in the planning but remains a source of contention among educators, students and parents.

The exam measures math and English proficiency; students must pass it to earn a diploma. Although more than 396,000 have passed, about 40,000 have yet to meet the requirement.

In February, a group of students and parents filed a suit, arguing that the test was administered unfairly, presenting a hurdle to poor, minority students and English-learners. They sought an immediate suspension of the exam. On May 12, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Robert B. Freedman ruled in their favor, issuing a preliminary injunction forcing the state to issue diplomas to students who otherwise met graduate requirements.

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Later that month, however, a divided state Supreme Court overturned the injunction, reinstated the exam and ordered an appellate review. The three-judge appeals panel ruled that Freedman erred in granting the preliminary injunction, giving undue weight to the students’ claims while discounting the state’s argument that it is in the public interest to set high educational standards.

The court said that having the state issue diplomas to students who failed the test amounted to social promotion.

“Doing so would have ensured that the state never lived up to its pedagogical responsibility to these students, and would inadvertently have perpetuated a bitter hoax: that the diplomas plaintiffs would have obtained under the court’s May 12 order somehow would have equipped them to compete successfully in life, even though they had not actually acquired the basic academic skills measured by” the exit exam, the decision found.

The case will now return to Freedman’s court for a full hearing on the merits of the students’ claims. Arturo J. Gonzalez, the attorney who brought the case for the students and their parents, did not return calls seeking comment. But Mike Chavez, a spokesman for Californians for Justice, which filed a brief supporting the injunction, said he was disappointed with the ruling.

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“I’m upset they would equate the importance of standards with the sort of effect that not receiving a diploma will have on students’ lives,” he said. “We agree there needs to be high standards, but we strongly feel the state has the responsibility to first provide a quality education for every student and then hold students accountable.”

State Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, who as a state senator wrote the law creating the exam, hailed Friday’s decision as a victory for education reform.

“The court’s decision validates the state’s efforts over the last 10 years to raise standards and expectations across the board and enhance educational opportunities for all students in California,” he said. “The exit exam is a key piece of the effort and retaining it will enable us to continue on the path of improving all schools.”

But other parts of the ruling provided education officials with less cause for cheer. The appeals court found that the students make a good case that they have not been provided with adequate information and support to pass the test: “We accept the trial court’s conclusion that plaintiffs established a likelihood of success on the merits as to the denial of their fundamental right to equal educational opportunity.”

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The judges concluded with an admonition to all parties to “step outside their ‘fog of war’ ” and cooperate in finding ways to provide students with “equal and adequate access” to remedial assistance, if needed, so they can pass the exit exam.


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