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The Libertarian

Vin Suprynowicz

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In California, a group of high school seniors and their parents filed suit last week against the state Department of Education and California school Superintendent Jack O’Connell.


The state won’t give the kids high school diplomas, because they can’t pass California’s high school exit exam.

Students in the class of 2006 are the first required to pass the two-part English and math test to receive diplomas. At the start of the school year, about 10,000 seniors -- out of the state’s 450,000 high school seniors -- had failed to pass at least one of the sections. (The state reports no more up-to-date statistic is available.)

Lead attorney Arturo Gonzalez says the lawsuit -- filed in San Francisco County Superior Court Wednesday on behalf of 10 students and their parents -- may expand to represent tens of thousands of students who have met all local requirements to graduate but have not been able to pass both parts of the test.

“Many students in California have not been given a fair opportunity to learn the material on the exam,” Gonzalez told The Associated Press. “These are good kids who have worked hard for 13 years to pass their courses.”

Liliana Valenzuela, a plaintiff and senior at Richmond High School in the San Francisco Bay area, has a 3.84 grade point average and is ranked 12th in her class of 413, according to the lawsuit. She said at a Wednesday press conference that she passed the math portion of the test on her first try but has been unable to pass the English section.

“I have been working really hard to go to college,” Miss Valenzuela said this week. “I have been on the honor roll for the last four years. ... I really wanted to wear my cap and gown.”

Department of Education spokeswoman Hilary McLean responds, “We would argue that it’s more unfair to hand them a diploma that doesn’t mean anything and doesn’t arm them with the skills and knowledge they’ll need.”

Superintendent O’Connell, who helped write the exit exam legislation, says he considered allowing alternative assessments to substitute for the exit exam, but rejected that idea. Those who fail the exam can take another year of high school, get extra tutoring, enroll in summer school, or attend community college classes until they can pass, he said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had included $40 million for such tutorial programs in next year’s budget.

The students and their parents may well have a cause for a legal action -- but not this one.

The result they seek -- handing diplomas to kids who have “tried hard” but who can’t pass an exam that’s been generously called “eighth grade material” by many private and parochial school students and even European kids studying English as a third language -- is ridiculous.

Oh, the California courts -- always anxious to overrule the Legislature and succor someone in search of a “do-over” -- may very well find a way to cut the baby in half, ruling the exam is “unfair” to immigrant children because a word problem asks about "corned beef" instead of machaca, or whatever.

But 23 states have already enacted such exit exams, and four more will be phasing them in by 2012, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Policy. That starts to sound suspiciously like a grass-roots expression of the will of the people.

Voters and taxpayers are fed up with paying billions for schools that do a lot of social work and propagandize endlessly about global warming but can’t teach kids to solve for the area of a triangle or tell the difference between “their” and “there.”

To bypass such modest exit exams is to complete the process of turning our public schools into the world’s most expensive multi-year day care program. At that point, why not just hang high school diplomas on the toes of the newborns in their maternity wards, and save ourselves billion and billions of dollars?

A much more sustainable lawsuit would be one which appraises the real costs of going through life without a high school education -- or the costs of private, professional tutoring to make up what these kids have not been taught -- and then seeks a court order requiring that the teachers and school administrators who signed off on the report cards awarding these kids “C”s and “B”s (and even “A”s) over the years individually recompense these families by those amounts, out of their ill-gotten salaries.

The whole idea of “grade levels” is that everyone knows third graders should learn their multiplication tables and how to diagram subjects and predicates in sentences, laying the groundwork for the new sequences of knowledge which are then built, year by year, upon those bases.

“D”s and “F”s are fair warning to parents that their kids are falling behind in what they should have learned. But if the schools failed to send out those warnings, instead engaging in “social promotion,” keeping parents in blissful ignorance by sending home grades which had no relation to any objective evaluation of their children’s mastery of the traditional subject matter, then a very expensive (and hard to rectify) fraud has been committed.

Teachers who joined in such a conspiracy should be fired and made to pay damages; well-paid administrators who tolerated or even orchestrated this widespread scam should be looking at jail time.

But the fact that the inadequately schooled kids got “good grades” can hardly be used to overrule a reasonable, uniform safeguard designed precisely to serve as a last-ditch defense against educratic fraud, rooting out and exposing grade inflation.

If there are to be no objective, consistent standards for an American high school diploma -- or if we are to waive those standards for kids who can’t read and write English -- then why go through the motions of government-funded “education,” at all?

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