CA Judge Says Students Shortchanged, Upholds Exit Exam Anyway

K-12 Testing

Two separate legal challenges to California's exit exam, which applied for the first time to the Class of 2006, have been rebuffed by a state appeals court, but plaintiffs say they have not given up their fight. There also have been new developments in legal battles over graduation tests in Arizona and Massachusetts.


A California appeals court ruled 3-0 in August against students who said they had been denied equal educational resources and should be granted diplomas despite failing the state's exit exam, overturning an injunction on the exit exam that had been granted by an Alameda Country Superior Court judge (see Examiner, May 2006). Presiding Justice Ignazio Ruvolo wrote that California schools have fallen short of teaching all students "the skills they need to succeed as productive members of modern society," but it would be a "bitter hoax" to award diplomas to those who hadn't acquired the basic math and reading skills tested on the exam.


Morrison & Foerster Attorney Arturo Gonzalez, representing the student plaintiffs, rejected this reasoning. "The State has done nothing to follow up on the 40,000 students who did not receive their diplomas. How does anyone in society benefit from depriving them of a diploma?" Gonzalez said. "I have yet to meet any employer or university admissions officer who ever asks how a student performed on the exit exam. It is a monumental waste of taxpayer money." Gonzalez said he is pressing ahead on behalf of the plaintiffs. "We're trying to get help for these kids. If the state won't agree, we'll have a trial." Losing the injunction does not end the legal case.


In September, the same panel of appeals judges also ruled against the plaintiffs in a separate case brought by the Californians for Justice Education Fund, which charged that state officials violated a law requiring them to study alternatives to the exit exam. A lawyer for the group said in early October they were considering whether to appeal the decision.


The two legal challenges would apply to the 20,000 high school seniors in the Class of 2006 who have met all graduation requirements but not succeeded in passing the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). An exemption for special needs students that runs through the Class of 2007 means an additional 22,000 disabled students did not have to pass the test to graduate in 2006.


Other states have also seen legal challenges to the tests on comparable grounds, with courts similarly reluctant to suspend the high-stakes use of the tests:


· Student plaintiffs filed a lawsuit, Espinoza v. State of Arizona, in April charging that they don't receive the services and programs they need to reach the state's academic goals and pass the Arizona AIMS exit exam. In May, an Arizona Superior Court judge denied a request to suspend the exam immediately. A spokesperson for the William E. Morris Institute for Justice, representing the students, said after a two-day hearing in late August that they await the court's ruling on a motion for class certification and a motion for preliminary injunction, which they expect by the end of October.
· After two years of negotiations, a legal challenge to Massachusetts' MCAS graduation requirement ended in a settlement promising a number of changes to state policy intended to help struggling students. For example, the settlement eliminated a requirement that non-disabled students meet a minimum score (216 out of the required 220) on the tests before they are eligible to appeal a diploma denial.

Other facets of the settlement include requirements that the state notify students of post-high school opportunities to prepare for and retake the test, notify families of students who fail about the appeals process, ensure disabled students have access to the academic curriculum, include instruction for students with limited English, reduce high school dropout rates, and report disaggregated dropout statistics on an annual basis. The proposed changes await approval from the state Board of Education. Removing the bar of 216 may become irrelevant if the board decides to ratchet up the passing score, as many board members seek to do. Education, civil rights and parent groups, and some legislators have mobilized against the proposal, but the gubernatorially appointed board has resisted public opinion.