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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

After years of legal wrangling, this may be the year that California requires its high school seniors to pass an exit exam in order to receive a diploma. With graduation ceremonies just weeks away, the state's Supreme Court has stepped in, saying the state may deny diplomas to those who haven't passed the test. That could be as many as 47,000 students.

We have NPR's Elaine Corey with us from San Francisco. Elaine, could you give us some background on these high stakes exams?

ELAINE COREY: Well, Michele, this high school exit exam was supposed to have gone into effect two years ago. Students must pass a test of about tenth grade English and only eight grade math and algebra. So it's a pretty easy test and kids have eight opportunities to pass it, starting in tenth grade. But despite that, there were lots of arguments, it was fought over and stalled and postponed and this was finally supposed to be the year that it was gonna count.

NORRIS: Supposed to be the year. So what happened?

COREY: Well, in February, a lawsuit was filed claiming the exam discriminates against poor and minority students who receive an unequal education in California. And those are the students who are most likely to fail the test. And a superior court judge agreed. He issued an injunction against the test. The state immediately petitioned to the Supreme Court, which has overturned the injunction.

NORRIS: And what was the Supreme Court's reasoning?

COREY: Well, it was a close vote. Four of seven justices overturned Judge Robert Freedman's injunction, saying it just wasn't an appropriate remedy. Even if schools are unequal and even if some students have received an inferior education, striking down the exit exam was not the solution. So the justices had kicked it back to an appeals court to hear arguments on the merits of the case.

NORRIS: And when might the appeals court hear the case?

COREY: Well, that's the problem. Graduation ceremonies are scheduled to begin starting in about two weeks. The end of May. And the case goes back to the first district court of appeals on an expedited schedule, but no one really knows how long it could take. It might be weeks at the last and graduation ceremonies are coming up.

NORRIS: So, Elaine, what happens now? What happens to all those kids who didn't pass the test?

COREY: Well, it's not necessarily all over for them, but it's not looking good. The state school superintendent, Jack O'Connell, is claiming a clear victory. With graduation a couple of weeks away, some 1,100 high schools have been ordering caps and gowns. They've been having diplomas printed. And it still looks like more than 40,000 students might not get their diplomas.

Now that number might be decreased somewhat because the test scores from some repeat tests that were given in March and May will be coming in and some of those students will be expected to pass, but certainly not all of them.

NORRIS: And for those who didn't pass that repeat test, do they have yet another chance?

COREY: They'll have many other chances. The test will be offered again in July and school superintendent O'Connell is stressing that there are summer school classes and online tutoring and independent study. He wants those students to keep trying, take the test again and finally pass it.

NORRIS: And those students who don't pass the test. Do they receive something in place of a high school diploma, some sort of high school completion certificate or something like that?

COREY: That depends entirely on the local school districts. Some of them may allow students to walk the stage with their classmates. They may receive something that's like a certificate of completion that may indicate that they passed their courses but didn't pass the exit exam.

But in some other districts, who are approaching this a little more harshly, they may not get to attend graduation at all.

NORRIS: Thank you, Elaine.

COREY: You're welcome.

NORRIS: NPR's Elaine Corey, speaking to us from San Francisco.

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