Governor signs bill exempting high school seniors from exit exam

August 26, 2015

Richmond High Counselor Edel Alejandre, right, speaks to students who have been denied their diplomas because they were unable to take and pass the exit exam after the July test was abruptly cancelled.

The governor on Wednesday signed a bill that eliminates the California High School Exit Exam graduation requirement for seniors in the class of 2015 who didn’t pass it.

Senate Bill 725 by Loni Hancock, D­-Oakland, was quickly passed by the Assembly last Thursday and by the Senate on Monday as urgency legislation to solve a dilemma that arose when about 5,000 students were denied the opportunity to retake the test in July. The state Department of Education cancelled the exam because its contract with the testing company was expiring and education officials wanted to avoid spending millions of dollars to renew the contract for a test that some believed was outdated, since it was not aligned with the new Common Core standards.

Gov. Jerry Brown did not issue a statement about why he signed the bill. But his office issued a statement that said he did not want students’ future plans to be jeopardized.

“Students who’ve been accepted into college should not be prevented from starting class this fall because of a test cancellation they could not control,” said Deputy Press Secretary Deborah Hoffman. “The governor signed this bill to ensure these students begin their college careers.”

A separate bill, SB 172 by Sen. Carol Liu, D­-La Cañada Flintridge, which aims to suspend the test through 2017­-18 and create a committee to discuss alternatives, will be addressed Thursday by the Assembly Appropriations Committee. But Hancock gutted and amended a bill dealing with visual and performing arts to expedite a solution for class of 2015 seniors who had completed all other graduation requirements. Some of those students said their college admissions were rescinded, they were unable to join the military, or they had job offers withdrawn because they didn’t receive diplomas.

Richmond High School students Brenda Diaz and Felipe Campos are among 37 students in the West Contra Costa Unified School District who will now receive diplomas thanks to the legislation. The district is planning a special graduation ceremony for the group, but has not yet set a date.

“I feel so great. I feel so happy. I’m so excited,” Diaz said in a phone interview Tuesday, after Brown’s office announced he planned to sign the bill. “I learned to never give up.”

Laughing happily during a separate phone interview, Campos was equally elated as he realized his goal of joining the Army could finally come true.

“That’s really something I’ve always wanted to do since I was a child,­ kind of a big dream for me,” he said, adding that he was glad he spoke out about his predicament. “I feel amazing. It was really worth it. If you don’t fight for what you want, you’re never going to get anywhere. In about a month, I’ll be going to boot camp, if everything goes correctly.”

Some districts didn’t wait for the legislation to pass before giving students diplomas. During the past two weeks, trustees in the San Francisco Unified, Oakland Unified and East Side Union High School districts removed the exit exam as a graduation requirement and issued diplomas so students would no longer be left in limbo.

Oakland is planning a graduation ceremony next month for the 67 students affected, but the other two districts consider the dates of their special board meetings their students’ graduation dates.

Chris Funk, superintendent of the East Side Union district, criticized the state Department of Education’s decision to cancel the test and said the Legislature was taking too long to fix the problem.

“The fact that they made the decision to save money is the worst decision I’ve ever heard of by the Department of Education,” Funk said. “So, I would expect our Legislature to take immediate action. Two weeks to do something is not immediate action – not when you have kids trying to enroll in college.”

Jack O’Connell

Representatives from other districts praised the governor and Legislature for their action. “The governor is making the right decision in our mind,” said Oakland district spokesman Troy Flint. “He’s acting in favor of justice, in favor of equity and in favor of rewarding students for their hard work and providing them with the opportunity they’ve earned to achieve a brighter future.”

Nellie Meyer, superintendent of the Mt. Diablo Unified School District, said 40 students – mostly English language learners ­– would receive diplomas as a result of the bill. She also expressed support for SB 172, saying she believes Smarter Balanced tests could be used as high school exit exams.

“We should be able to find cutoff points that align with 8th­-grade mathematics and 10th­-grade English,” she said. “If there’s a way we could avoid testing students more than we need to, I’m all for it.”

Jack O’Connell, who authored the legislation that required the exit exam before he served as state Superintendent of Public Instruction from 2003-11, said in an EdSource commentary that this specific test, put into place in 2006, “was always meant to be temporary.”

“We were transitioning to new state academic standards, and we knew those standards would change again in the future,” he said. “I’ve always believed that our assessment and accountability systems need to be coherent and avoid duplicative and unnecessary testing, and the current version of the high school exit exam is neither aligned to our standards nor essential to the development of our new accountability system.”

After students spoke out about the negative effect of the test cancellation earlier this month, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson issued an Aug. 13 news release asking public universities to help students who were denied admission because they didn’t pass the exam.

“No student’s dream of a college education should be delayed because of an anomaly,” Torlakson said, in a prepared statement. “That’s why I am working closely with college administrators and the Legislature to remedy the situation and help these students stay on track for college.”

He noted that SB 172 was “making its way through the Legislative process,” but didn’t mention that it would not go into effect until January, if it passes.

Tom Torlakson

“With the legislation to suspend the California High School Exit Exam progressing, the $11-million­-a­-year contract to administer the test was not renewed, and therefore the July exam was not offered as in past years,” according to Torlakson’s news release.

But others appeared to blame Torlakson and his department. Attorney General Kamala Harris called the decision to cancel the test “a thoughtless bureaucratic blunder” in an Aug. 14 statement.

“This oversight creates real and immediate harm for these students,” she said.

A San Francisco district news release pointed out that Torlakson cancelled the test before SB 172 was considered by the Senate, “leaving many seniors without an additional opportunity to obtain a high school diploma.”

Several Republican legislators also asked for accountability, saying they don’t want to do away with testing and this contract controversy should have been anticipated well in advance.

The California State University system announced last week that it would not turn away applicants who met all other graduation requirements except for passing the exit exam. In addition, the state Department of Education decided not to penalize districts that defied state law by granting diplomas to students in the class of 2015 who met all other graduation requirements, said Communications Director Bill Ainsworth in an email.

Ainsworth said it would have cost about $2 million to administer the July test. However, he noted that the Department of General Services prohibited the extension of the exam contract by instead requiring new Request for Proposals for the test.

The state informed schools on June 1 that the July test would be cancelled, causing frustration not only for students in the class of 2015, but also for those from previous years who have met all graduation requirements except for passing the exam. Now that those in the class of 2015 can receive diplomas, many students who have been trying for years to pass are wondering whether they can receive the same exemption.

Monica Billy, whose daughter didn’t pass the exam in 2014, but met all other graduation requirements, has taken her pleas for an exemption to the state Department of Education. Her daughter, she said, can’t get federal financial aid to attend community college without a diploma.

Some education department officials told her the Legislature might address all students who haven’t passed the exam in SB 172. Deputy Superintendent Keric Ashley said the bill is still being amended.

“In the meantime,” he said, “the California Department of Education is having our contractor prepare to offer the next administration of CAHSEE in November, if the bill is unsuccessful.”

Audio interviews recorded and edited last week by Matt Levin.

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