Monday, August 14, 2006
Appeals Court Strikes Down Ruling on High School Exit Exam
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The First District Court of Appeal struck down a preliminary injunction Friday that prohibited California school districts from withholding high school diplomas from members of the class of 2006 who had not passed California’s high school exit exam, but met all other graduation requirements.
Div. Four agreed with Alameda Superior Court Judge Robert B. Freedman’s finding that the students who filed suit challenging the exam requirement established the probability that they will succeed on their claim that it violates their equal protection rights, but found that Freedman failed to properly weigh the relative interim harm to the parties and others when he issued the injunction, and that the injunction was overbroad, was not tailored to the violations alleged, and did not preserve the status quo pending resolution of the litigation.
Presiding Justice Ignazio J. Ruvolo, writing for the court of appeal, said:
“[W]e disagree with the trial court’s conclusion that directing defendants to give plaintiffs diplomas was an appropriate remedy to further the equality in education that plaintiffs seek by their lawsuit.
“Instead . . . doing so would have ensured that the state would never live up to its pedagogical responsibility to these students, and would inadvertently have perpetuated a bitter hoax: that the diplomas plaintiffs would have obtained under the court’s . . . order somehow would have equipped them to compete successfully in life, even though they had not actually acquired the basic academic skills measured by the [exam].”
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a released statement:
“This ruling is a great victory for our students and our state. We owe our children - especially our economically disadvantaged and minority students - a good education and the tools they need in college and in the work place. The exit exam is our best resource for ensuring that schools are giving our children the knowledge and the skills they need to begin successful lives.”
But the governor said, “Equally important is that we provide students the necessary tools to pass this exam.”
Freedman found convincing the students’ evidence regarding the “disparate effect of . . . scarcity of resources on schools serving economically challenged neighborhoods and communities,” and found that “students in economically challenged communities have not had an equal opportunity to learn the materials tested” on the exam.
Ruvolo said that Freedman’s finding was supported by substantial evidence and noted that the students did not challenge the Legislature’s prerogative to impose the exit exam degree requirement, or argue that the exam imposes unfair or academically invalid standards for high school graduation, or that the exam, as designed, is an invalid test of the skills it was designed to measure.
“The gravamen of plaintiffs’ primary equal protection claim is narrow, and quite specific,” Ruvolo said. “The focus of their claim is that it is a violation of the equal protection clause of the California Constitution to apply the [exam] diploma requirement to students who, they allege, have passed all of the course requirements for graduation, but who have not been provided with the educational resources necessary to enable them to pass the [exam].
But Ruvolo said that Freedman “abused his discretion” in the manner in which he weighed the relative interim harm to the parties and others if the injunction was granted, or not granted.
“First, the trial court gave virtually no weight to defendants’ proof that at least in some cases, plaintiffs’ failure to pass the [exam] would only result in a delay in their receipt of their high school diplomas, rather than a permanent denial of them,” Ruvolo said.
“The record makes clear that members of the plaintiff class have nine options available to them by which they can continue their educations and obtain either a high school diploma or a similar certificate . . .”
Ruvolo noted that Freedman “gave only a partial, and fleeting, response to these alternatives, opining that ‘[r]emaining for a fifth or subsequent year in an already stressed district or attending community college when the student might otherwise be accepted to a four year [sic] institution all demonstrate significant risk of harm.’”
“This finding is plainly an inadequate response to defendants’ assertion that plaintiffs had considerably overstated the irreparability and seriousness of the harm with which they were threatened.”
Ruvolo also found that Freedman failed to consider the harm to other students.
“Granting diplomas to students who have not proven this proficiency debases the value of the diplomas earned by the overwhelming majority of disadvantaged students who have passed the exit exam,” he said.
The justice also found that Freedman failed to consider evidence that granting the relief the students sought would cause substantial harm to the public interest in enforcing the exam requirement as an integral part of the statutory scheme adopted by the Legislature in an effort to raise academic standards in California public schools.
Finding the injunction to be overbroad, Ruvolo said:
“The scope of the relief granted affected every high school in the state regardless of circumstances, and would have required the granting of diplomas to 47,000 high school students regardless of how many of that number were actually educationally disadvantaged.”
Noting that the purpose of a preliminary injunction is to preserve the status quo until the case can be tried, the judge said:
“[T]he ostensibly interim relief of forcing the ‘social promotion’ of plaintiffs, by ordering that they be given diplomas, in fact does not maintain the status quo of the litigation, but ends it. Surely the trial court did not expect that if defendants ultimately prevailed in the litigation, plaintiffs would give back the diplomas they had received under the mandate of the court’s preliminary injunction.”
Ruvolo found that the relief granted by the injunction, requiring that diplomas not be withheld, was not tailored to the fundamental right to equal educational opportunity allegedly infringed.
“The purpose of education is not to endow students with diplomas, but to equip them with the substantive knowledge and skills they need to succeed in life,” he said. “A high school diploma is not an education, any more than a birth certificate is a baby. Its purpose is to symbolize the holder’s acquisition of a certain level of knowledge and skills.”
Students need to obtain a 60 percent score on a test of up to 10th grade English language skills, and a 55 percent score on a test of math skills at up to a 7th grade level, plus algebra, in order to pass the exam.
Sixty-nine percent of the students in the class of 2006 were able to pass both sections of the exam when they first took it in February 2004, while they were in the 10th grade. By the March administration of the exam, 90 percent of all students in the class had passed, leaving nearly 42,000 students who did not. The pass rates for certain categories of students remained lower than the overall rate: about 85 percent for Hispanics, 83 percent for African-Americans, 86 percent for economically disadvantaged students, and 77 percent for English learners.
The case is O’Connell v. Superior Court (Valenzuela), 06 S.O.S. 4170.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company