A California judge struck down the state's controversial high school exit exam Friday, potentially clearing the way for thousands of seniors who have failed the test to graduate with their class next month.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Robert B. Freedman issued a preliminary injunction against the mandatory testing requirement, ruling it places an unfair burden on poor and minority students who attend low-performing schools.
"With the bold stroke of a pen, Judge Freedman has given 47,000 students an opportunity to walk the stage with their classmates and to receive their high school diplomas," attorney Arturo Gonzalez said in a statement. Gonzalez filed the challenge to the exit exam in February on behalf of a group of students and their parents.
With graduation ceremonies weeks away, the decision throws into question the fate of many of the 46,700 seniors statewide -- roughly one in 10 -- who have failed the two-part test. It is certain to reignite national debate over the fairness of such exams.
State Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, who wrote the legislation mandating the exam in 1999, expressed deep frustration over the ruling and reiterated the state's plans for a speedy appeal.
"I am greatly disappointed in today's court decision," he said. "It's a setback for students and for hard-fought school accountability in our state.... It's a decision that should not be allowed to stand."
Freedman rejected a request by state lawyers Friday to stay his decision until an appeals court can rule on the case. Hoping to quell confusion among students, parents and school districts, state lawyers said they would seek the stay from a higher court as they pursue their appeal.
"The most immediate concern is the chaos this decision creates in high schools all over the state. There are students who are within days of graduation. They are left with uncertainty about whether or not they will be granted a diploma," O'Connell said at a news conference at Burbank High School. "How are these students and schools supposed to plan for their immediate future?"
This year's 12th-graders were the first class to face the testing requirement, which includes a section of eighth-grade math and another of ninth- and 10th-grade English. Students are required to answer little more than half of the questions correctly and can take the test multiple times. Students with learning disabilities were exempted from the test.
Originally slated for students in the class of 2004, the test was postponed for two years because of low passing rates. In January, O'Connell rejected calls from civil rights groups and others to consider alternatives to the test.
Friday's ruling marks a serious setback for O'Connell and other advocates of the exam. They have strongly defended it as an important gauge to assure students leave high school with a basic level of knowledge.
Next week could bring further problems for the state when Freedman will hear arguments in another exit exam lawsuit. Filed last month, the suit alleges that the state Board of Education and O'Connell reviewed exam alternatives too late for lawmakers to meaningfully consider them.
In issuing the injunction, Freedman said he was swayed by Gonzalez's argument that many impoverished and minority students -- particularly those learning English as a second language -- attend low-performing schools that do not prepare them adequately for the test.
Of the 46,700 seniors who have failed the test, 20,600 are designated as limited English learners and 28,300 are poor.
Freedman added that $20 million allocated by state lawmakers to bolster schools' test preparation efforts had not been fairly distributed, with more than 160 needy schools receiving none of the money.
Anticipation among state politicians, educators and others had risen since Monday when the judge indicated in a tentative ruling that he was inclined to issue the injunction.
State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) applauded the decision. "The judge's decision strips away the facade of claims that equal education is being provided in every one of our state's schools," she said in a statement.
Russlynn Ali, director of the advocacy group Education Trust-West, echoed the judge's concerns about unequal schools, but said without the test it will be harder to "ensure that all students master the basic skills they will need to succeed in college and in the workforce."
The judge rejected the state's argument that the decision should apply only to the students who filed the case. Any senior who has completed all other graduation requirements but failed the exit exam is affected, he wrote.
It is unclear how many students are affected by Friday's ruling. Some may have recently passed the test and others may fail to graduate for other reasons.
Nationwide, 19 other states with about half of the country's students require seniors to pass an exit exam, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education Policy. Six more states are developing exams.