Calif. Court Upholds 'Exit Exam' Mandate

The California Supreme Court reinstated a requirement that high school student pass an exit exam before graduating. The ruling means tens of thousands of high school seniors may not be able to attend graduation ceremonies to get their degree.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

BRAND: And I'm Madeleine Brand.

The California Supreme Court has ruled that exit exams may be used for high school seniors. A lower court had banned the exams. And joining us now is Arturo Gonzalez, he's an attorney representing the student plaintiffs in the case. He brought the case challenging the use of those exams. Welcome to the program.

Mr. ARTURO GONZALEZ (Attorney): Thank you very much.

BRAND: How are your clients handling this ruling?

Mr. GONZALEZ: Not well at all. Obviously, the kids are not happy. You know, the vote was four to three in the Supreme Court, and kids have a hard time accepting that. I will say this: you know, the court did not rule that Judge Friedman - who had issued the injunction - was wrong, and it didn't rule that the kids have to pass the test this year. What they ruled was that there's an issue that the court of appeal needs to decide. And so they sent it back to an appellate court in San Francisco, which basically means a panel of three justices now will decide whether or not, in fact, the kids will have to pass this test.

BRAND: You know, other states - some 19 states, I believe - have these exit exams, and mostly the courts have sided with them saying that they are permissible. What's wrong with these exit exams?

Mr. GONZALEZ: Yeah, you know, you're right about that. The courts have sided with the exit exams. The problem is - and California is a perfect example - half of the high schools in California have not taught all of the material on the test as of the start of this year. Now that's undisputed. That's part of the consultant's report that the state hired. Half of our high schools have not yet taught all of the material. The judge knew that. So how can you then deprive the students of a diploma if they don't know the material?

One other thing, quickly: in California, part of our exit exam law says that if a student fails the test as a sophomore, as a junior, you have to provide remediation, which means additional instruction to help the student. Well, as of the start of this year, half of our high schools hadn't done that, either. So Judge Friedman pretty much thought, well, wait a minute. First of all, you haven't complied with the law yourself, State of California, and secondly, half your schools haven't even taught the material on the test.

BRAND: But shouldn't students know this material, isn't it basic?

Mr. GONZALEZ: Students can only know what they're taught, and that's the whole point is there's nothing basic about math if you don't teach people math. For example, what's the square root of 4,800? A lot of people would know that off the top of their head. Other people won't, but if you don't teach the kids, they're not going to know. And that's the point that concerned Judge Friedman, is that half of our school, remarkably, haven't taught all of the material on the test.

BRAND: So what does it mean, graduation is just around the corner? What does it mean for, I think it's an estimate 48,000 students who won't pass it?

Mr. GONZALEZ: I'll tell you what, I mean right now, first of all we're in uncharted waters. We've never been in this situation in California. This is 150th year, ironically, that we're going to have graduates from California public schools, and the first time we've ever made them pass this test. So what's going to happen is today I am going to - as soon as I get to my office - file a document in the Court of Appeal asking for an expedited hearing. We're going to ask them to hear this next week so that hopefully upon hearing it, they will reinstate the injunction, let these kids graduate, let them get their diplomas. And then we lawyers can duke it out later.

BRAND: Arturo Gonzalez is a lead attorney representing student plaintiff's challenging California's exit exam. Mr. Gonzalez, thank you for joining us.

Mr. GONZALEZ: Thank you.

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