updated 5/12/2006 6:37:53 PM ET 2006-05-12T22:37:53

An Alameda County superior court judge has granted a preliminary injunction suspending California's high school exit exam for the class of 2006, potentially allowing thousands of students who have failed the test to graduate.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said the state would immediately appeal the ruling. He said the decision creates "chaos" for more than 1,000 high schools that are completing their graduation preparations.

"There are students who are within days of graduation. They are left with uncertainty over whether they will be granted a diploma," O'Connell said in a teleconference. "How are these students and these schools to plan for their futures?"

Judge Robert Freedman said he was persuaded by the arguments of the plaintiffs, 10 students who claimed the exit exam discriminates against poor students and those who are learning English.

"There is evidence in the record that shows that students in economically challenged communities have not had an equal opportunity to learn the materials tested on the (California High School Exit Examination)," Freedman wrote.

Applies to all who failed test, met other requirements
The judge rejected the state's argument that the decision should apply only to the six remaining plaintiffs. He said all seniors who have otherwise met the requirements for graduation but have failed the exit exam are affected.

"Prospective harm to a student who is otherwise fully qualified to graduate is sufficiently clear. Remaining for a fifth or subsequent year in an already stressed district or attending community college when the student might otherwise be accepted to a four-year institution all demonstrate significant risk of harm," Freedman wrote.

The ruling affects 47,000 seniors, about 11 percent of the class of 2006, who have yet to pass both the English and math sections of the exam.

"With the bold stroke of a pen, Judge Freedman has given 47,000 students an opportunity to walk the stage with their classmates and to receive their high school diplomas," the plaintiffs' lead attorney, Arturo Gonzalez, said in a statement.

Request for a stay of the ruling
Before Freedman issued his final decision on Friday, the state attorney general's office filed a request asking him to immediately stay the injunction pending an appeal.

It argued that the decision is "an issue of overwhelming state importance affecting the more than 1,000 school districts with high schools in this state and the educators and students within those schools."

State attorneys said a stay of the judge's decision is needed to prevent "substantial confusion in the field" about whether students need to pass the exam to graduate this year. This year's graduating class is the first one required to pass the exam to earn a diploma.

O'Connell told reporters during his conference call that the judge was reviewing the state's request.

Freedman issued a tentative decision earlier this week siding with attorneys for the students. He delayed his final ruling until Friday to give state attorneys time to file their brief requesting that the ruling be limited to six remaining plaintiffs.

The four other plaintiffs passed both sections of the exam after the lawsuit was filed.

In their brief, the state attorneys noted that all six students have poor English skills and can't pass because of that, not because they were denied a good education.

"They have not offered any evidence that would support that the reason why they have not yet passed the (California High School Exit Exam) is because of some failure by the state," the state lawyers wrote. "To the contrary, the reason why these students have not yet passed the CAHSEE is due to their lack of English skills, as established by their own admissions."

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