Editorial: Fighting for phony H.S. diplomas

If the five-month-old lawsuit to block the California high school exit exam achieves the indirect result of forcing the state’s educational establishment to improve English and mathematics teaching for foreign-born and/or low-income students, then something productive would have come from it.

However, we’d be considerably more impressed by this case if its avowed purpose were not to demand that standard 2006 high school diplomas be issued to the remaining 20,000 students who fulfilled all 12th-grade graduation requirements except for being able to pass a test in eighth-grade math and 10th-grade English.

Editorials on this page have repeatedly insisted that a high school diploma is supposed to be granted for attaining at least a fundamental 21st century education, not for simply piling up an adequate four-year attendance record without getting expelled.

We find it remarkable that anyone professing to have the students’ best interests at heart would seriously argue the justice of bestowing what would be meaningless diplomas on teens who didn’t yet learn elementary English and math, and then sending them out to compete in the world.

At least last week’s three-judge state Court of Appeal hearings raised all the correct issues. Responding to the plaintiff attorney’s argument that the state does not equally prepare all students to pass the exit exam, Judge Ignazio Ruvalo said social promotion is no remedy because California students have the constitutional right to a genuine education, not merely a piece of paper that falsely claims they received an education.

Lawyers for the state Department of Education argued that students who fail the test simply need more classroom work. Recent immigrant students who have not been in the U.S. long enough to master high school English have done well on the test if they make the good choice of continuing to study in an adult school, charter school, community college or an extra year of high school.

School districts that resisted the exit exam requirement have threatened to issue their own certificates of completion to otherwise-qualified seniors. For the short term — until California’s educational inequalities are better remedied — we have no problem with schools giving kids a piece of paper indicating that they passed all graduation requirements except for the statewide test proving they actually achieved a high school education. After all, that would be the truth.

However, giving everybody the same high school diploma whether or not they could pass the exit exam would merely demean the accomplishments of those who did learn, rendering a California high school diploma largely valueless in the job market or for college admissions.

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