Thousands of struggling high school seniors are likely to be denied a diploma after the state Supreme Court on Wednesday reinstated California’s exit exam, a hotly debated gauge of competency in math and English.
For the nearly 47,000 seniors -- about one in 10 -- who haven’t passed the test, the high court’s decision came as a whipsaw. Nearly two weeks ago, a lower court judge threw out the exam, seeming to give students a last-minute reprieve and the opportunity to receive diplomas in graduation ceremonies.
The class of 2006 was the first to be required to pass the exam, which supporters say is a needed indicator of whether graduates have a basic level of knowledge.
In a split decision, the high court suspended a May 12 ruling by an Alameda County Superior Court judge that forbade school districts from denying diplomas to students who failed the exam.
But the justices declined to hear the case and instead ordered an appeals court to quickly render a decision on the test.
Nineteen other states with about half the nation’s students require seniors to pass an exit exam, says the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education Policy. Nearly all of those states have won legal challenges to their exams. With several other states currently developing exit exams, the case against California is seen as a crucial test.
State Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, who has long fought for the exam, said that he quickly alerted school districts to the Supreme Court’s move and that he expected it would provide a sense of certainty for students and school officials after weeks of confusion.
“This is a clear victory for public education,” he said. “The students who have worked very hard to pass this exam will be given a diploma that signifies their mastery of essential skills in reading and math.”
A court spokesperson declined to speculate on how quickly the 1st District Court of Appeal would hold hearings.
Arturo Gonzalez, the San Francisco attorney who filed the case on behalf of a handful of students, held out hope that the court would issue a ruling before the end of the school year
“If the constitutional rights of our children are violated, we cannot punish them further by depriving them of a diploma that they have rightfully earned by passing all required courses,” he said in a statement.
Gonzalez had persuaded Superior Court Judge Robert B. Freedman to toss the exam on the grounds that it presented an unfair hurdle for many poor and minority students who attend under-performing schools and are ill-prepared for the exam.
Of the 46,700 seniors who have failed the test, 20,600 are designated as having limited English skills and 28,300 are considered poor.
In their one-page ruling, four Supreme Court justices indicated that they believed it was wrong for Freedman to do away with the exit exam altogether.
“At this juncture this court is not persuaded that the relief granted by the trial court’s preliminary injunction ... would be an appropriate remedy,” the justices wrote.
The four-justice majority called for the stay of the earlier decision and for the case to be sent to the appeals court. Two other justices would have let students who hadn’t passed the test graduate with diplomas that indicated as much. The seventh justice agreed that the case should go to the appeals court but opposed the stay.
Politicians and educators throughout the state reacted swiftly to word of the stay.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa both praised the decision.
“The exit exam ensures that our schools are living up to their responsibility by giving our students the skills and the knowledge they need to succeed in college and in the workplace,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement. “Postponement would have deprived us of the best tool we have to measure how well schools are doing their job.”
Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Roy Romer echoed the governor, saying a “high school diploma has to represent some meaningful level of accomplishment.”
The two-part exam includes eighth-grade math and ninth- and 10th-grade English. Students are required to answer little more than half of the questions correctly and can take the test multiple times beginning in their sophomore year.
It is unclear how many students statewide will ultimately not get a diploma this school year because of the exit exam requirement. Some are awaiting results after recently taking the test a final time, and others will fail to graduate for other reasons.
About 1,800 seniors in L.A. Unified have fulfilled all their other graduation requirements except the exit exam, district officials said. Romer said those students who do not pass will not receive a diploma but will be allowed to participate in graduation ceremonies if they took the test in their senior year, enrolled in district tutoring sessions and agree to do so again this summer.
O’Connell reiterated his promise to “not give up on the students who are still struggling to pass.”
It is likely, he said, that state lawmakers will approve funding to administer the exam again in late July. Those students who continue to fail can attend summer school, return for another year of high school or enroll in remedial classes in adult school, he said.
Gonzalez and other critics have dismissed such options as unrealistic.
The Supreme Court’s stay Wednesday is the latest turn in a long, difficult effort to impose the exit exam in California.
Originally slated for students in the class of 2004, the test was postponed for two years because of low passing rates. In January, O’Connell rejected calls from civil rights groups and others to consider alternatives to the test. Special education students have won a one-year exemption.
“It’s terribly unfortunate that our students have been subjected to this yo-yo process,” said Santa Ana Unified School District Supt. Al Mijares. “We do everything that we know to do to make them see the seriousness of this, and then we tell them it’s off, then it’s on, then it’s off, then it’s on. What does that do? It just makes a mockery of the process.”
Mijares urged lawmakers and education officials to scrutinize the exam and consider alternative means to test student knowledge.
“Obviously, if it has had this much contention, there must be some issues there that I think have to be looked at, [such as] the disproportionate numbers of English learners ... who are most challenged by the test.”
This week a second group fighting the exit exam filed an appeal with the state Supreme Court, asking the justices to delay the requirement on the grounds that lawmakers have not had an opportunity to consider alternatives to the exam.
Ashley Daigle, a Chino Hills High School senior who has yet to pass the math portion of the test, was stunned by Wednesday’s decision. The 18-year-old passed the English portion of the test on her first try, but has failed the math section three times. She will learn in coming weeks whether she succeeded on her final attempt.
“That just broke my heart,” she said of the test’s reinstatement. “It’s unfair. It’s like toying with someone’s emotions, like dangling a piece of candy in a kid’s face.”
Times staff writers Seema Mehta and Duke Helfand contributed to this report.