Monday, May 15, 2006

Two Setbacks for Exit Exams Taken by High School Seniors

By JESSE McKINLEY / New York Times
May 10, 2006

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.

The tentative ruling shocked the state superintendent of public instruction, Jack O'Connell, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both favor the exams as a way to raise standards. California has the largest public school system in the country, with 6.3 million students, but mediocre rankings.

Mr. O'Connell said the state would immediately appeal any injunction.

"We're prepared for the long haul," he said in a telephone interview. "I'm convinced there will be some more turns in the road."

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."

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.

Carolyn Marshall contributed reporting from Oakland, Calif., for this article, and Katie Zezima from Boston.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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