May 9, 2006

Graduation exam lawsuit in California

A state judge in California is expected to issue an injunction blocking the exam requirement for California high school diplomas, in an echo of the Debra P. v. Turlington cases in Florida (1979-1983) and the G.I. Forum v. Texas Education Agency (2000) case in Texas.

The California case is Valenzuela v. California, and it follows on the heels of Chapman v. California, which won a reprieve for students with disabilities, I think until the state creates an alternative exam or accommodations. Coverage is available in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sacramento Bee, the Los Angeles Times, and Scripps Howard News Service.

A little analysis follows...


Debra P. established federal legal standards that most judges are holding to these days: States are allowed to withhold diplomas based on a test, even if the test disproportionately affects a protected class under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, if the state can demonstrate a legitimate purpose to the test, if the test is technically sound, if students have a legitimate opportunity to learn the material, if there are multiple opportunities to (re)take the test, and if there are no alternatives that achieve the same state purpose without the disproportionate impact.

But there's a twist here: the state of California has already been found to have violated the educational rights of poor children, under state standards. On the one hand, that's a higher standard than the Civil Rights Act. On the other hand, will the judge apply the Debra P. federal reasoning to the state's obligations or create reasoning specific to California? Will the judge use the Debra P. solution (which was to delay the implementation of the state testing until all children who had suffered under a segregated system before Florida's 1971 busing orders graduated?

The research on this is mixed. Some claim that there's a clear link between exit exams and dropping out. Others claim there's a kick-in-the-pants effect that boosts achievement. Yet others point out that states commonly increase credits requirements when they create exit exams, so any effects may be tied more to seat-time than exam requirements. Then there's the question of how we'd measure it in the first place, and about the only thing that makes this situation happy for me is that I'm an editor of a journal, where this type of policy disagreement is good for a journal. Controversy! Manuscripts! Publications!

No, I don't think the evidence is conclusive in either (or maybe any) direction. Yes, children are guinea pigs for policies. They always are.

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Posted in Education policy on May 9, 2006 12:27 PM |