A Bad Week for Public Schools

I am a bit late on this one, but a California judge has determined that giving kids tests that have consequences is unconstitutional:

A judge in Oakland struck down California's
controversial high school exit exam Monday, issuing a tentative ruling
suggesting the test is unfair to some students who are shortchanged by
substandard schools.

If finalized, the unexpected ruling
would block the state from carrying out its plan to deny diplomas for
the first time to tens of thousands of seniors who have been unable to
pass the exit exam.

Note that this standard essentially means that no tests with real consequences (e.g. denial of grade advancement or diploma) can ever be given, because with 1129 high schools in California, some schools will always be below par.  So his argument will always apply -- there will always be kids who can claim their school is on the low end of the normal distribution.  And even if every school were exactly the same, kids within these schools could, I presume, similarly argue to this judge that they had sub-par teachers or sub-par parents or a sub-par reading light or a sub-par dog that ate their homework.

By the way, doesn't this also imply that California can no longer name state champions among high schools in various sports?  After all, isn't that unfair to schools with lesser sports programs?  And couldn't I extend this ruling to say that California state run colleges shouldn't be using high school grades or SAT scores or any other test-based metric in selecting entrants since some of these folks came from low-performing schools?

This confusion of equal protection with equal outcomes is so absurd its not really even worth commenting on further.  I won't even bother, then, asking how the judge expects sub-par schools to be made to improve without testing-with-teeth, or even what objective standards the judge used to determine that any schools were "substandard" in the first place.

For those who support this ruling, and agree with the plaintiff attorney's language that sounds like students have a right to a diploma that can't be denied without due process, here is a question:  What is a diploma?  Obviously, you don't want it to mean that a student has demonstrated basic knowledge and abilities against an agreed upon standard.  Are we reduced to a diploma being a certificate of attendance, indicating that a student grimly sat through 4 years of classes and nothing else?

This same week, the Florida Senate was unable to rescue the very successful state voucher program in the face of last year's insane Florida Supreme Court ruling that vouchers were unconstitutional because the Florida Constitution's uniformity clause:

the Florida Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that the voucher program violated
the "uniformity clause" of the state constitution guaranteeing a
high-quality system of public schools. Because the performance of the
voucher kids was superior to those in public schools, the court ruled that education was not uniform -- or in this case not uniformly miserable.

The program in question that was struck down by the court awarded vouchers to students of schools that failed to pass state standards. 

The program at issue is Governor Jeb Bush's
seven-year-old "Florida A+ School Accountability and Choice Program."
For the first time, schools have been graded on the reading, writing
and math progress made by the children they are supposed to be
teaching. (Imagine that.) Any school that received an F in two of four
years is deemed a failure, and the kids then get a voucher to attend
another school, public or private.

One immediate impact -- according to researchers at
Harvard, Florida State, and the James Madison Institute -- has been
that the mere threat of competition caused many inner-city school
districts to improve. The percentage of African Americans who are now
performing at or above grade level surged to 66% last year, from 23% in
1999.

What is amazing about the court's decision is that every kid who got a voucher, 90% of whom are minorities, came from a school demonstrated by objective standards to be far below average.  But, according to the court, it is constitutional for these kids to be in schools that are far below average, but becomes unconstitutional when kids are moved to above average schools?  Does this make any sense?  I'ts sort of a reverse Lake Wobegone effect -- the system is constitutional as long as all the schools are below average but once any are above average then its unconstitutional.  LOL.

Here is the reason that the court's logic doesn't make sense:  The real thing they are concerned about with the uniformity clause is not uniform quality, but whether the schools are uniformly controlled by the government and uniformly populated with union rather than non-union teachers.

Note that both these decisions use the existence of flaws within the two states' educational systems (e.g. low-performing schools) combined with a "uniformity" or "equal protection" standard to strike down reforms aimed at fixing these very flaws.  Both are saying that you can't reform the schools until all the schools are equally good,  but of course the schools will never improve without reform. 

Update:  But good news in Newark.  It's depressing but not surprising to see my alma mater's own Cornell West out there fighting against school choice for African-Americans.

Update #2:  Walter Olson comments:

It would appear that from now on a high school diploma is meant to
signify not a student's actual mastery of a certain body of material,
but rather the mastery he or she would have attained had the breaks of
life been fairer. Employers, and all others who rely on California high
school diplomas in evaluating talent, would be well advised to adjust
their expectations accordingly.

  • http://www.spoonhouse99.blogspot.com Garble

    I think that you skipped over the main point. There is a real debate on equality of results vs. equality of opportunity.

  • BobH

    Given the logic of the Florida ruling, based on inequality, perhaps the problem with the program was that it wasn't sweeping enough -- it would be legal if vouchers were offered to all students at all schools.