Ruling expected today in California exit exam case

(Scroll down for the Saturday update – original time and date of this post was May 12 at 11:57 a.m. ET)

I blogged about this case earlier this week – the ruling on it is expected today. A preliminary ruling was issued Monday that signaled bad news for the state:

SAN FRANCISCO, May 9 — In two setbacks for high school exit exams, a judge in Oakland said Tuesday that he was inclined to ban such tests as a graduation requirement in California and a Massachusetts school board voted to issue diplomas to students who had failed such tests despite a state law prohibiting that.

In California, Judge Robert Freedman of Superior Court in Alameda County said in a preliminary ruling on Monday that the exams, standardized math and English tests that high school seniors have to pass to graduate, discriminated against impoverished students and students learning English.

On Tuesday, as thousands of students took a late round of tests, Judge Freedman heard arguments in favor of them, but indicated the state’s lawyers faced an uphill fight.

“The court is basically resolute in its original decision,” the judge said. He said he would issue his final decision on Friday.

Attorneys for the students argue that the state didn’t do everything it could to help the students pass the exit exam. The state’s argument, on the other hand (emphasis added):

Officials said they had done everything they could to help students adjust to the requirement, including delaying the California High School Exit Exam for several years. The law was passed in 1999, but the class of 2006 is the first to have to pass it to graduate.

A ruling against the exams could allow nearly 47,000 seniors who did not pass — more than 10 percent of the class — to graduate next month.

Opponents of the exams, which more than 20 states require, hailed the developments.

“It is a major victory, both substantial and symbolic,” said Robert A. Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a watchdog group in Cambridge, Mass. “It sends a message to other states that they should reconsider one-size-fits-all graduation tests.”

Translation: It’s not fair that the students who apply themselves more than others pass while others do not apply themselves fail.

One Massachusetts school board is dealing with a similar issue:

Such reconsideration is under way in New Bedford, Mass., south of Boston. On Monday, the school board there voted to issue diplomas to students who had fulfilled academic requirements but had not passed the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, which evaluates math and English skills at the 10th-grade level.

Gov. Mitt Romney called the decision a “gross mistake” and illegal.

“New Bedford is going to take corrective action,” Mr. Romney said, adding that the state could withhold more than $100 million in school money earmarked for the city.

You may be wondering, just what the minimum requirements to pass the CA exit exam are. Here’s your answer:

Mere weeks before high school graduations, Judge Robert Freedman of Alameda County Superior Court may stop before it starts the state’s essential mandate that high school graduates score at least 60 percent on a test of eighth-grade math and 10th-grade English.

High school seniors have to score a mere 60% or better on a test of 8th grade math and 10th grade English. If the arguments on behalf of the students attorneys are accurate – that the state didn’t supply them with all the tools they needed in order to pass 8th grade math and 10th grade English (we’re talking basic math and English skills) – then someone should have spoken up LONG before now.

Keep in mind that almost 90% of students from all kinds of backgrounds (poor, etc) have already passed this exam. What would a ruling in favor of the students who failed it mean to the idea that achievement is important? Debra Saunders provides the answer:

At issue is the larger question of whether schools exist to make children learn or to make children feel good. If Freedman decides that undereducated students can graduate because it’s not fair to deny them a diploma, Sacramento might as well give up on improving the schools.

The state might as well save itself some money, and issue an edict that says poor and immigrant students shouldn’t have to learn math and English — because it is not fair to expect them to achieve.


I’ll be on the lookout for Freedman’s official ruling, which as noted earlier is expected sometime today.

Saturday AM Update: As expected, Judge Robert Freedman ruled in favor of the students. Via the SF Chronicle:

An Alameda County Superior Court judge’s decision to strike down the state’s high school exit exam might thrill the nearly 47,000 seniors who haven’t yet passed the graduation test, but state educators hope to reverse the judge with an appeal next week.

The ruling by Judge Robert Freedman on Friday means that the state cannot carry out its plan to withhold diplomas for the first time from high school seniors who have satisfied all graduation requirements except one: passing the exit exam, a test of 7th- to 10th-grade English, math and algebra skills.

It’s an 11th-hour upset victory for thousands of low-income students and English learners, who now expect to be able to attend commencement exercises and graduate with their classmates in just a few weeks.

Lawyers representing students who had not passed the test sued the state on Feb. 8. The lawsuit claimed that many students have not had the opportunity to learn the material on the exit exam because they went to substandard schools with unqualified teachers, insufficient textbooks and squalid conditions.

Freedman agreed, saying, “Students in economically challenged communities have not had an equal opportunity to learn the materials tested.”

Freedman wrote in his opinion that the “record is replete” with evidence of California’s underfunded schools and said his decision applies to students statewide.

“The negative effects of (the) scarcity of resources continue to fall disproportionately on English language learners, particularly with respect to the shortage of teachers who are qualified to teach these students,” Freedman wrote.

Liliana Valenzuela, an 18-year-old senior from Richmond and the lead plaintiff in Valenzuela vs. California, was in an English class at Richmond High on Friday when she got a cell phone call informing her of the judge’s decision. Containing her excitement, she quietly told her teacher, then slipped from class to meet her lawyers.

“I feel very happy,” she said later in Spanish. “Now I’ll be able to have my diploma and fulfill my desire to become a nurse.”

Failure has been rewarded, courtesy of the Alameda County Superior Court.

What’s the point of even having an exit exam if you can fail it and still get your diploma?

As noted in the article, the state will appeal. But I don’t have high hopes that Judge Freedman will change his mind.


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