State tries to limit scope of lawsuit over exit exam
OAKLAND – The attorney general’s office argued in court Tuesday that a judge’s inclination to prohibit California’s high school exit exam from taking effect this year should apply only to the students who filed the lawsuit, not the thousands who failed to pass.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Robert Freedman issued a tentative ruling on Monday siding with plaintiffs who said the exam is discriminatory because the state does not provide an equal education to all students.
Jim Tarwater, superintendent of Lake Tahoe Unified School District, is not surprised by the legal fracas. A compromise, he said, is to give seniors a high school diploma if they completed all requisite classes and a notice on the diploma if they passed the exit exam.
“We all understand meeting standards, but they have to be fair and equitable standards,” Tarwater said.
During a hearing on the matter Tuesday, Freedman said he would issue his final ruling on Friday. In the meantime, he gave the state’s lawyers time to file arguments about which students should be covered by his decision.
He is considering granting a waiver for this year’s seniors, the first class required to pass the test to receive a diploma.
About 47,000 seniors have not yet passed both the English and math sections. In a typical year, about 50,000 seniors fail to graduate for various reasons.
Tarwater said in Lake Tahoe Unified School District, two of the 307 students in the graduating class have not yet passed the exam. The two students are scheduled to take the exam this month and will walk in graduation ceremonies in June.
A group of 10 high school students and their parents filed the lawsuit in February against the state Department of Education and school Superintendent Jack O’Connell, claiming the exam was illegal and discriminates against poor students and those who are learning English. They sought a court injunction to delay the consequences for students this year.
On Tuesday, attorneys for four of the students requested they be withdrawn from the lawsuit because they have since passed the math portion of the exam.
The judge took that request under advisement. The remaining six students are classified as English-learners.
“The remaining students are struggling with the English. Is it because they haven’t been taught? Is it because there’s a lack of curricular alignment? Your honor, the answer is clearly no,” Douglas Press, supervising deputy attorney general for California, told the judge. “These students simply lack English-language proficiency – again, not because they weren’t taught.”
He said several of the plaintiff students had been in U.S. for only a few years.
The judge said he based his tentative decision on the plaintiffs’ argument that all California students do not have access to the same quality of education.
He further explained his decision by saying the harm to students who do not receive their diplomas is serious. Meanwhile, the effect on the state is negligible if it is required to grant diplomas to all students who otherwise meet the requirements this year, he said.
“We have a serious problem in the state of California with respect to the distribution of our teachers. … We have a severe shortage of credentialed teachers, especially in minority communities and in low-income communities,” said Arturo Gonzalez, the lead plaintiff attorney.
Because of that, Gonzalez argued, his clients and other students who have failed the test did not have equal opportunity and were not taught the material on the exit exam.
After Freedman issued his tentative ruling on Monday, O’Connell said he would appeal any ruling blocking the exam’s implementation. He called the test “a cornerstone of California’s school accountability system.”
O’Connell wrote the 1999 legislation that enacted the test. Last week, the Department of Education said about 11 percent of this year’s senior class has yet to pass the English and math sections, although students have multiple opportunities to take the exam.
Failing students can take another year of high school, get extra tutoring, enroll in summer school or attend community college until they pass, he said.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also is a supporter of the exam and criticized Freedman’s tentative ruling when it was made public Monday night. He said the test was the state’s best tool to measure school performance and said delaying its consequences “does a disservice to our children.”
Nationwide, 23 states have graduation exams, while four others are phasing them in by 2012, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education Policy. Most states also offer options for students with special needs and those who are learning English, center president Jack Jennings said.
– The Associated Press and Tahoe Daily Tribune reporter William Ferchland contributed to this report
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