Thousands stopped by exit exam may qualify for diplomas, but outreach spotty

After nearly 10 years trying to get her high school diploma, 27-year-old Ocotlan Castelin may now qualify under a new California law that invalidates the state's high school exit exam.
After nearly 10 years trying to get her high school diploma, 27-year-old Ocotlan Castelin may now qualify under a new California law that invalidates the state's high school exit exam.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

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A new law compels California school districts to issue diplomas to former students who met every graduation requirement except passing the California High School Exit Exam.

School districts can begin issuing diplomas to qualified graduates in January.

But a check of several districts shows that efforts to inform ex-students that they may now qualify for a diploma — a life-changer for many — have been uneven. Some districts are actively seeking those impacted while others say they don't have the resources to look for and contact them.

About 35,000 students statewide met every graduation requirement except passing the exit exam since 2006, when the test was implemented. Many of those students may have since passed the exit exam after going to adult school, so it’s unclear exactly how many might be eligible now to get their diplomas.

Los Angeles Unified officials said they estimate about 8,000 former district students met all graduation requirements except passing the exit exam going back the past nine years. The district is planning to inform those that they can reach.

“It’s not a requirement of the law that we reach out to every student. But we, as a district, we’re going to send a notification to each student that we know, based on their last known address,” said Cynthia Lim, LAUSD executive director of the Office of Data and Accountability.

The district will also launch a website so former students can check if they qualify, she said.

Some school districts are including social media in their outreach plans. Sergio Flores, assistant superintendent, education services with El Monte Union High School District, said his district is putting together a plan to connect with those who may be eligible for diplomas. The district's schools have already gotten calls on the issue.

“They were our former students. Many of them probably still live in our community, and we feel a sense of obligation to help students beyond the four years or five years that they’re with us,” he said.

Some educators aren’t waiting for the district administration to come up with an outreach plan.

One day a week, for two hours at the end of her shift, adult school instructor Christine Gallardo gets on the phone to try to reach former students who may now qualify for a diploma.

On a recent day, she reached a former student at his home and told him that he may be eligible for a diploma.

“He’s excited, you hear him screaming? He’s like, 'Yeah!' They’re very happy to hear this news,” she said.

But getting the word out to former students hasn’t been a priority for some districts.

Santa Ana Unified School District Superintendent Rick Miller said his large school district can’t take on the added work of informing former students without added funding.

“I don’t think we necessarily have an obligation, nor do I think most of us, meaning districts in general, are going to go out and palm through lists and try to find students. For one thing, we don’t have capacity to find them because they’ve moved,” he said.

Some who think the districts should do more to find the eligible students are worried that the potentially life-altering diplomas may not get to those who qualify — especially people like 27 year-old Ocotlan Castelin.

Castelin would have earned her diploma in 2006, the first year the exit exam became a graduation requirement, but the test stopped her.

“In high school, I was doing very good. I had As and Bs, and a C, in geometry or algebra. But other than that, I had everything. I had really good grades, credits. It was just the high school exit exam that I just didn’t pass it,” she said.

Castelin's been turned down for work at FedEx, banks, and other places because she doesn’t have a high school diploma, she said. She earns $10 and $11 an hour at two part-time jobs and works seven days a week. She’s been going to adult school to try to pass the exit exam.

“It’s like a struggle to me because I have two kids and I do it for me, for them, because I have a better future,” she said, her voice breaking.

She’s hopeful now that a counselor told her the exit exam requirement is gone for now. 

Public interest lawyer John Affeldt, who supported eliminating the exit exam, is concerned about the spotty outreach by school districts.

“The state is the one that’s put districts and students in this quandary,” said Affeldt.

He urged state officials to provide funds to small and medium-sized school districts to reach as many former students as possible.

The California Department of Education, however, said it has no role in the awarding of the diplomas under the new law. For now, it’s encouraging, but not requiring that school district reach out to former students.