Supreme Court’s reinstatement of exit exam creates confusion
SACRAMENTO (AP) – An appeals court on Thursday turned down a last-minute request from attorneys to review California’s high school exit exam, leaving in place a decision by the state Supreme Court that kept the exam in place for this year’s senior class.
The court’s decision not to hear arguments in the case until July 25 essentially ends the on-again, off-again exit exam requirement of the last few weeks, which began when a lower court suspended it.
The court battle has created confusion for thousands of students, parents and schools making final graduation plans. Some districts will allow students who have met all other graduation requirements to walk across the stage with their peers anyway.
In the Santa Ana Unified School District, where most of students come from poor families whose parents did not graduate from high school, one in six seniors hasn’t passed the test of basic math and English, Superintendent Al Mijares said.
“Emotionally and symbolically the high school diploma means a lot to kids. To put that in a state of doubt for them has caused some of them to feel deflated,” Mijares said. “They’re literally days away from graduation. They thought they were going to get their diploma.”
The court’s ruling affects about 47,000 seniors statewide, or one in 10 who had not passed both parts of the test as of March. The Class of 2006 was the first required to pass the test to graduate.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Robert Freedman on May 12 granted a temporary reprieve on the exam, siding with students who sued the state for discrimination because all students do not have access to an equal education in California.
Richmond High School senior Schylon Stewart was thrilled with that ruling. She has taken the exit exam several times but has fallen just short of passing the math section. Schylon just received her cap and gown and was looking forward to graduating with her classmates when she learned Wednesday that the high court reinstated the test.
“It’s like they’re playing with us,” said Schylon, 18, who still hopes to start classes at a community college next fall. “I was mad. One minute they’re telling me you’re going to get your diploma. Then they’re saying you’re not going to get it.”
Richmond is among the schools letting students who have failed the test take part in graduation ceremonies, but Schylon doesn’t plan to attend.
“What’s the point of walking the stage if I’m not going to get the diploma?” she said.
Arturo Gonzalez, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, on Thursday made an emergency appeal to the 1st District Court of Appeal to immediately hear arguments on whether the exam should be delayed. He said the Supreme Court, in reversing Freedman’s decision, did not disagree that the students may have had an unequal education, but found the judge’s remedy – suspending the exit exam – was wrong.
“Let’s let them graduate while we work out the legal issues,” Gonzalez said.
But the court denied his request and set briefing dates in mid- through late-June. The court planned oral arguments on July 25.
Some schools offered counseling to disheartened students.
“They’re very depressed. They feel the door is closed to them right now,” said Lola Verdin, who works with Richmond High’s large Spanish-speaking community. On Wednesday, “We had four students crying. One of them threw down her cap and gown.”
At McLane High School in Fresno, exit exam coach and retired teacher PJ Macado-Silvestro met with frustrated students Thursday to talk about the roller coaster of emotions. She framed it as a lesson in democracy and praised the students for their perseverance.
Still, there was sadness.
“In the euphoria of ‘they were going to graduate,’ students who were reluctant to buy a cap and gown, did. Students who were reluctant to invite family and friends, did. There was a second round of embarrassment for them. That was the real hurtful part of it,” Macado-Silvestro said.
Officials in the Sacramento Unified School District took a tough approach, shutting out from graduation ceremonies the approximately 130 seniors who haven’t passed but could otherwise graduate.
“We had to underscore that this was a serious requirement and that they needed to take it seriously,” spokeswoman Maria Lopez said.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, who wrote the legislation enacting the exam while he was a state senator, was relieved by the Supreme Court’s ruling and the appeals court’s decision Thursday to take briefs in mid-June.
“We’re glad that it will give districts certainty on the status of the high school exit exam law through the high school graduation season,” spokeswoman Hilary McLean said.
Students who can’t pass are being urged to take summer school courses, enroll in community colleges or attend a fifth year of high school. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed 2006-07 budget includes $65 million for remedial instruction for kids who can’t pass the test. There is no limit on the number of time a student can take the exam.
– Associated Press Writer Terence Chea in San Francisco also contributed to this report.
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