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Exit exams block special education students from graduation

Thousands of special education students slated to graduate this year have not passed the high school exit exam. And if they don't pass by the end of the school year, they won't get their high school diplomas. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed legislation that would have waived the test as a graduation requirement for those students. Special education advocates say unless changes are made, the exit exam could spell disaster for students with disabilities. KPBS reporter Beth Ford Roth has the story.

Kathy Edwards's face lights up when she talks about her son David. She points out the photos of him at different ages that decorate the walls of her La Jolla office.

Edwards: This is a picture of my son when he was two-years-old, long blond hair, beautiful blue eyes, this is a picture of him when he was probably in sixth grade

David is now 14, and a freshman at La Jolla High School. He does well in his college prep classes, and loves football. He also has a learning disability.

Edwards: If you did a brain map of my son, what you would find is that that part of his brain that deals with memory is just not lighting up, so for him using a calculator is like giving a prosthetic arm to someone who has had an amputation.

In addition to being the mother of a learning disabled student, Edwards also has a doctorate in special education, and works as an advocate for special ed students. She says one of the most frightening things on the horizon for parents like her is the high school exit exam. Edwards says it's an unfair assessment that could keep an otherwise model student from getting his diploma.

Edwards: He may have gotten great grades, he may have a 4.0 GPA, he may be in the honor's society, he may be in this that and the other, but he may end up with a certificate of completion because he couldn't pass the high school exit exam, it just is not logical.

Almost 90-percent of students in the Class of 2006 have passed the English portion of the high school exit exam. The passage rate is similar for the math section. But just 54-percent of special education students have passed the English portion of the test. 51-percent have passed the math portion. Steven Tollafield represents the plaintiff in a class action lawsuit that sought to keep the test from being a graduation requirement for special education students. He says these students are taught in different settings, and through different methods, and they aren't learning the material that's on the test.

Tollafield: It's the state's responsibility before attaching high stakes consequences to a single test, to ensure that all students have been adequately prepared for that test statewide, and the state just hasn't done that, there's just no evidence that students with disabilities who typically require individualized education programs, have been taught the material they need to know.

The lawsuit was settled this summer. The settlement would have exempted special ed students in the class of 2006 from having to pass the test. But in October Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed legislation that would have implemented the lawsuit's conditions, because the bill sought to extend the exemption to the class of 2007.

Tollafield says the whole purpose of the lawsuit was to show that special education students shouldn't be penalized for not passing the High School Exit Exam. He says in the long run, there needs to be a better way to test their abilities.

Tollafield: In order to have full access to a high stakes test there needs to be some alternate method for demonstrating high school proficiency besides just a standard pen and paper test.

But that doesn't seem likely. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell says he believes the high school exit exam is the best way to assess if students, all students, are ready to graduate from high school and enter the workforce.

O'Connell: Our folks are looking at potential alternative assessments for special ed students, as well as non-special ed students, thus far I have not been convinced that such a mechanism exists to make sure that we have high standards, that we are producing students that can be competitive and successful in the global economy without watering down our standards.

O'Connell says he plans to push for emergency legislation this month that would immediately implement the terms of the lawsuit settlement. But O'Connell says special education students in the Class of 2006 must be the last class to get an exemption, because the students in later classes will have had enough time to take advantage of remedial classes available to them to help them pass.

An Alameda County Court judge will hear arguments next month to implement the settlement's terms without legislation. Beth Ford Roth, KPBS news.

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