Thousands more former high school students could get exit exam waiver

A move to exempt about 5,000 of last year’s California high school seniors from a required state exit exam may now be extended to thousands more former students from previous years.

A pending bill that would suspend the California High School Exit Exam for three years because it does not align with Common Core curriculum is being amended to include waivers to students who didn’t pass the English and math exit test going back to 2006, the first class required to pass it.

“I want all students to succeed,” said Sen. Carol Liu, D-La Cañada-Flintridge, in an e-mail. “The amended bill will allow those former students to seek waivers to receive diplomas. Once the bill becomes law, it will set up a three-year review period to determine if the exam is still relevant or needs to be replaced.”

If passed, it would be up to individual school districts whether to retroactively issue the diplomas, according to Robert Oakes, Liu’s legislative director.

On Wednesday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that will exempt seniors from the Class of 2015 who had yet to pass the high school exit exams. The state stopped offering the test this summer, leaving those students who still needed to pass it in limbo.

But that urgency measure helping last school year’s seniors doesn’t include former students, who by law were allowed to continue trying to pass the test.

People like Mayra Alonzo, from Santa Ana’s Century High School Class of 2006.

Alonzo took all the required classes and passed the English portion of the state-required exit exam on her first try back when she was in school. But she hit a snag with the math section.

Without a diploma, Alonzo began working and enrolled in Santa Ana College, where she took both college courses and more recently enrolled in a high school diploma program.

Alonzo did not learn she had the right to retake the high school entrance exam until two years ago. So she tried again. She came close: 348, then 349 on the most recent try. She needed 350 to pass.

“I need my diploma because I want to go back to school and become a nurse,” said Alonzo, who works two jobs, including one as a caregiver to the elderly.

It’s unclear how many students statewide this amendment could affect.

One of Orange County’s larger school districts, Anaheim Union High School District, has 169 adult students just from the Classes of 2013 and 2014 who are still trying to pass the test.

Counselors and school administrators who earlier expressed concerns that former students were being left behind greeted the news about Liu’s amendment with enthusiasm on Friday.

“It certainly will support our hope to help students move forward to their next opportunity. It helps particularly those students who want to serve in the military (and need a high school diploma,)” said David Haglund, deputy superintendent of educational services for the Santa Ana Unified School District.

The move “will serve as an inspiration to the untold numbers of students who left high school before finishing because they believed they could never pass the (exit exam,)” said Patrick D. Yrarrázaval-Correa, a Santa Ana Unified counselor who urges those who dropped out to go back and finish high school.

Late Friday, the department issued a press release urging all educational agencies to immediately begin issuing diplomas to the approximate 5,000 students from the Class of 2015 who met all other graduation requirements except for the exam.

There was no mention of students from previous years. A California Department of Education spokeswoman on Thursday suggested that students from earlier classes could get their GED, or a general education diploma.

Arturo Gonzalez is a San Francisco attorney who won a settlement with the state following a 2006 lawsuit that challenged the test. The settlement guaranteed access to two additional years of instruction for students who failed the the exam past high school and additional opportunities beyond that to take the exam, which was given several times a year.

Earlier Friday, Gonzalez said the state had opened itself up to litigation. Later in the day, upon learning that Liu amended her bill, he said: “That would be fantastic for the many low-income and disadvantaged students who passed all other high school requirements but who have been struggling to find work because they don’t have a high school diploma.”

For Alonzo, of the Class of 2006, Liu’s amended bill can’t come quickly enough. She wants to enroll in a nursing program this year.

Contact the writer: 714-704-3777 or rkopetman@ocregister.com

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