California has spent some $50 million developing and administering the high school exit exam, as mandated by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Gray Davis. This was to be the first year that passage of the exam would be a high-school graduation requirement -- except that an Oakland judge seems poised to throw the requirement aside. The legislative vote, executive approval and millions spent to develop and administer the test apparently mean nothing, not when a judge thinks a reform is not fair.
I wish I were shocked at a last-minute judicial fiat that runs roughshod over a much-needed school reform -- much as, in a different age, a French aristocrat's coach might ram over peasants unfortunate enough to stand in the way. In this brave new world, if anyone tries to improve schools -- and you can't improve schools without raising standards -- no matter how weak those standards are, some court likely will step in to quash the reform lest it hurt someone.
As if ignorance doesn't hurt children. Arturo Gonzalez, the attorney who wants to overthrow the exit exam requirement, has argued that the test isn't fair because schools are not equal. Judge Robert Freedman of Alameda County Superior Court apparently agrees. The judge will issue a final ruling on Friday but already has said he is inclined to grant an injunction to allow seniors to graduate even if they failed the eighth-grade level math test, the 10th-grade level English test or both.
It's sad but true: All California schools are not equal. The question is: What do you do about the inequity? Do you sanction the inequity by allowing students to graduate ignorant? Is that fair? Or do you require that all graduates be able to read a news story and know what it means when a sale sign says "25 percent off"?
Gonzalez likes to frame the exit exam as "one test" -- as if students must pass after being thrown into a rushing stream, or else they will sink. Not so. Students first take the two exit-exam tests as sophomores.
If they score more than 55 percent in the math test or more than 60 percent in English language arts, they pass and never have to take that test again. If they fail, well, that's a wake-up call that a student has not learned what he needs to know. Passing grades won't send a false message to parents and students, who will have two more chances as juniors and three chances as seniors to pass the exam.
State schools chief Jack O'Connell, who wrote the exit-exam bill as a state senator, is fighting the lawsuit. He believes that, by prompting underachieving students to study harder, the test is responsible for the jump in the number of high schools -- 12 percent this year, compared to 7 percent last year -- that scored 800 or above on the state's 1,000-point Academic Performance Index.
Indeed, four of the 10 student plaintiffs have passed the exit exam since the lawsuit was filed. The exam is working. But it won't work if the courts undermine it.
I feel for students who have failed the exam -- whether it is because they haven't kept up with their coursework or are new to the English language.
Still, if they attend a school that does not grant certificates of completion (for those who pass their coursework but flunk the exit exam), they can earn a GED or attend adult education. Teens may not like that alternative, but at least they will know, when they receive their diplomas, that they earned them.
Just as Freedman and Gonzalez know that they earned their positions on the bench and in the bar. I should note that the state has argued that an injunction would apply only to the six remaining plaintiffs. It's hard to imagine that a judge who feels he can upend years of legislating, tinkering and test-taking will be satisfied with an injunction for six students.
At issue is the larger question of whether schools exist to make children learn or to make children feel good. If Freedman decides that undereducated students can graduate because it's not fair to deny them a diploma, Sacramento might as well give up on improving the schools.
The state might as well save itself some money, and issue an edict that says poor and immigrant students shouldn't have to learn math and English -- because it is not fair to expect them to achieve.