Santa Barbara News Press

Court Fight Over Exit Exam Leaves Students in Limbo

As judges and attorneys sort out the legalities of the California high school exit exam, the fate of seniors like Santa Barbara’s Daniel Lacoy — who takes the test today — hangs in the balance.

For Daniel and tens of thousands of high school seniors statewide who have yet to pass both the English and math portions of the exam, the word that best describes their current state of existence is “limbo.”

In past years, Daniel — a student at La Cuesta Independent Study — could have counted on graduating in the middle of June with the rest of his peers. The month of May would be a cakewalk into the future — the calm before the stress of transition.

However, this is the first year in the history of California in which high school seniors must pass the exit exam to obtain a diploma.

As they take their final shot at passing today, it’s crunch time for about 60 area seniors, or 3.5 percent of the local class of 2006. Statewide, it’s about 47,000 seniors, or 11 percent of the graduating class.

But on Monday, a judge presiding over a lawsuit filed against the state gave unexpected hope to the 47,000 seniors. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Robert Freedman issued a tentative ruling siding with the plaintiffs, who say the exam is discriminatory because the state does not provide an equal education to all students. He plans to make an official ruling on Friday.

Then, on Tuesday, the pendulum swung back. The Attorney General’s Office argued in court that the judge’s inclination should apply only to the 10 students who filed the lawsuit, not the thousands who failed to pass.

As for Daniel, whose twin brother has passed the exam and will walk the stage to graduate, he is simply focused on acing the test that has been nagging him all year.

“No one’s informed me about that,” he said of the political football happening at the state level. “All I know is I have to take the test tomorrow, and if I don’t pass it, I won’t be getting a diploma. . . . This is the real deal.”

For Daniel and the 47,000 others, the uncertainty of the future doesn’t stop at the debate between judges and lawyers. The results of the exam taken today will not be available until July. This means that as his family gathers to celebrate the graduation of his brother, nobody will know whether to say congratulations to Daniel.

“It makes me feel out of place a little bit,” said Daniel, whose efforts to pass the test have been hampered by health issues. “You have your ups and downs. You just get through them.”

Daniel missed four months of his sophomore year because of a life-threatening battle with spinal meningitis. He easily passed the math test but barely fell short on the English test, because of the essay. He was supposed to take the English test again in March but missed the testing date because of an illness he believes was caused by food poisoning.

All year, he has been feverishly writing practice essays, and believes he is prepared for the real thing today, when he sits down to take the three-hour test.

If he passes, he will get on with his plans to become a paramedic, which will require taking some courses in the fall at Santa Barbara City College. If he doesn’t, he may be looking at another year of high school. But Daniel doesn’t even entertain that notion.

“I don’t do Plan B’s,” he said.

The judge said he based Monday’s tentative decision on the plaintiffs’ argument that all California students do not have access to the same quality of education. He said that the harm to students who do not receive their diplomas is serious.

After the tentative ruling, state schools chief Jack O’Connell said he would appeal any ruling blocking the exam’s implementation. He called the test ”a cornerstone of California’s school accountability system.”

Mr. O’Connell wrote the 1999 legislation that enacted the test.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also is a supporter of the exam and criticized the judge’s tentative ruling when it was made public Monday night. He said the test was the state’s best tool to measure school performance and said delaying its consequences ”does a disservice to our children.”

Nationwide, 23 states have graduation exams and four others are phasing them in by 2012, according to the Washington-based Center on Education Policy. Most states also offer options for special needs students and English learners, center President Jack Jennings said.

California’s exam tests 10th-grade English, ninth-grade math and level-one algebra. Students need to answer 60 percent of the questions correctly to pass each section.

Failing students can take another year of high school, get extra tutoring, enroll in summer school or attend community college until they pass.

This story includes reports from The Associated Press.