Disability Advocates Settle Lawsuit with State Education Dept.

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday April 08, 2008

Berkeley-based Disability Rights Advocates settled a seven-year-old lawsuit with the state Department of Education Friday. In the settlement the state agreed to study the pass rate for special education students on the California High School Exit Exam. 

Disability Rights Advocates had charged the state with not giving students with disabilities fair opportunity to pass the test, which students must pass to graduate from high school. 

“It’s an invalid and discriminatory exam as applied to these students,” said attorney Roger Heller, who has been working on the case for the last two years. “The settlement will provide information about what changes will be made to the policy.” 

Heller said that the group had filed the lawsuit after talking to special education students and their families from all over the state. 

“They were not being given proper instruction and not being taught by teachers with the right credentials,” he said. 

All California public school seniors are required to pass the state exit exam—which tests basic math and English skills—to graduate since 2006. 

As a result of the ongoing lawsuit, high school seniors in special-education classes who met all other graduation requirements in 2007 received a diploma regardless of whether they passed the exit exam. 

The state legislature passed Senate Bill 267 in 2006, which ensured that students with documented disabilities could receive their diplomas, in response to the lawsuit. 

The bill includes certain procedural requirements students must meet in order to graduate. 

However, lawyers from Disability Rights Advocates failed to get disabled high school seniors an exemption from the exit exam this year, making it mandatory for them to pass it to qualify for a diploma. 

If pending legislation sponsored by Sen. Gloria Romero passes and is signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, special education students in the classes of 2008 and 2009 would be exempt from taking the exit exam. 

“It’s a state-wide issue,” said Berkeley Board of Education President John Selawsky. “Special education kids might have proficiency but there may be time constraints and processing issues which make it a problem for them to take the test. We try and accommodate them as much as we can. Some students will get more time, others will get special resources.” 

Berkeley High School is estimated to have around 200 special education students who go through Individualized Educational Programs (IEP) for need-based assessment, Selawsky said. 

“The goal is to get them out of special needs,” said district spokesperson Mark Coplan. “There are some kids who clearly don’t have the ability to successfully pass the exit exam. It’s important to look at each student to see what their capacity is, but again, the state laws govern that. We are still trying to determine, as a district, how to address that.” 

According to the settlement, the state Department of Education will hire a consultant to study the exit exam and prepare a report outlining findings and recommendations. 

The study will take into account seniors who have taken the exit exam with modifications and accommodations specified to their respective IEPs, but have not passed it, and who have satisfied or will satisfy all other graduation requirements. 

Students with disabilities and parents who have been affected by the state exit exam can complete the Disability Rights Advocates’ exit exam impact survey at