George Skelton | LA Times Columnist
September 15, 2008 -- SACRAMENTO — The predictable result came in last week from forcing students with disabilities to pass a high school exit exam in order to earn a diploma. Nearly half failed.
Failed. A demoralizing word for some kids who struggle daily to perform tasks most teens carry out with ease.
The psychological damage "is horrific," says Sid Wolinsky, director of litigation for Disability Rights Advocates, which fought unsuccessfully for alternative ways to measure the knowledge of special education students.
"We had dozens of sworn declarations from parents about the deep depression that their disabled children went into when they didn't pass the exit exam," Wolinsky says. "When you're a child with a disability, you start with problems of stigma, societal stereotyping and self-confidence.
"Then you're shattered when you can't pass the exit exam. You blame yourself and have terrible problems with self-worth."
The class of 2008 was the first in which special education students -- those with learning, physical or mental disabilities such as autism or dyslexia -- were required to pass the exit exam to receive a diploma. They could try unlimited times.
The state Department of Education reported last week that among the nearly 40,000 students with disabilities who took the exam, 53.8% passed and 46.2% failed. By contrast, among the non-special ed students, 93.6% passed.
Not all special ed students even took the exam, only an estimated 72%, according to the department. They're generally students who are studying under what's called "individualized education plans" -- instruction that accommodates their disabilities -- and are on a "diploma track," taking all the required courses needed to graduate. Yet, nearly half of them flunked the exit exam.
My first reaction reading news stories of the exam results was that the state shouldn't be harassing these kids. Give them a pass. Hand them a diploma if they manage all their course work. After all, California prospered for more than 150 years without a high school exit exam.
In fact, it wasn't until 1999, when freshman Gov. Gray Davis was trying to ensure a legacy of education reform, that the Legislature mandated the exit exam for public schools. (Private schools aren't affected.) The 2006 class was the first required to pass it. Special ed students in 2006 and 2007 were exempted, but no longer.
Get off the backs of disabled kids, I thought. Many can't handle hours-long English and math tests, even if they are permitted the same accommodations -- such as somebody reading to them -- that they're allowed in their special classes. Just let them fulfill their own potential and feel good about it.
But, of course, things rarely are as simple as they seem. There's also merit in the opposite argument.
"It's in the best interests of the special education kids, and I feel very strongly about that," says State Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, who as a legislator sponsored the exit exam bill for Davis.
Exempting students with disabilities from passing the exam "isn't helping them," O'Connell contends. "You're setting them up for failure in the workforce. It makes a high school diploma just a certification of seat time, a pat on the head. I just don't believe that kids with disabilities are second-class citizens. All students can learn."
"Parents tell me it's an insult to their children's ability" to exempt them from the exam, he continues, adding that the test "is pushing more students to reach for a higher bar of achievement."
But when does the reach become too much of a harmful strain on the psyche?
There's a middle course in two bills recently passed by the Legislature.
One (AB 2040) by Assemblyman Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles) would direct the state Board of Education to identify alternative methods of assessing special ed students. Maybe a "portfolio" of oral exams and classroom work such as Oregon and Massachusetts allow.
O'Connell says he's open to the idea, but "I haven't seen an alternative yet that measures our standards and prepares students for success. It doesn't mean there's not one out there."
He's adamantly opposed to the second bill (SB 1446) by Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles). It would exempt special ed students in the 2008 through 2010 classes and allow time for the state board to devise a new testing method.
"California has gone testing crazy," asserts Romero, who plans to run for O'Connell's job when he's termed out in 2010. "But we're not saying don't have an exit exam. That train has left the station. We don't object to special education students taking an exam. But we should provide for multiple ways to test a student's knowledge.
"Is form more important than substance? We're arguing for substance. That's more important than dogmatism and rigidity over what the form should look like."
A similar Romero bill that also included the contents of Nuñez's measure was vetoed last year by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He thought the bill circumvented the state Board of Education's authority. So this year the legislation was altered to give the board more control.
The governor hasn't taken a position on the current bills. And they won't be sent to him anyway until a budget passes. The deadline for bill signing is Sept. 30.
We need common sense here. One size doesn't fit all. Education is more than abstract academia. It's also about building social skills and self-confidence -- about reaching as high as possible, and not being punished for not fulfilling some bureaucrats' or politicians' expectations.
We should call a time out and reexamine the exam for these special kids.