WE'VE heard more than enough rhetoric in recent months — in the past few years, really — over the Achieving Classroom Excellence law that requires Oklahoma students to pass four subject-area tests in order to graduate from high school.
The law approved in 2005 was never a partisan effort; it had support among Republicans and became law under a Democrat's governorship. Since its passage, some school administrators and lawmakers have fought for its repeal. The fight reached its fever pitch just in the past few months as reality sunk in that some seniors wouldn't graduate as anticipated with a high school diploma.
Come Tuesday, reality will take center stage. The state Board of Education will hold a special meeting to hear appeals from students denied diplomas under the ACE rules.
State Education Department officials anticipate the board will entertain appeals from 31 students (or their parents if the students are younger than 18) seeking waivers from the law. The students are from several districts, including Broken Arrow, Tulsa, Wagoner and Oklahoma City. Education Department staff will make a recommendation based on information students and schools submitted. Some of those students are almost certain to win their appeals because they've satisfied the requirements in other ways, including meeting the board's recent caveat granting an automatic waiver for students admitted to selective colleges. The appeals will be on a consent docket although board members can opt to hear individual pleas.
We don't envy the challenge before the board. This is the first round of appeals since the Legislature approved and Gov. Mary Fallin signed a law in April that defined an appeals process granting students a hearing. Students have 30 days after the denial of their high school diploma to file an appeal. State officials then have 45 days to render a decision.
It will no doubt be difficult hearing directly from students and their parents instead of school administrators speaking from notes about their students. State board members rarely see the impact of their work in such a close-up manner. Since this is a new process, the latitude board members have to grant an appeal isn't clear. The law already had exceptions for extenuating circumstances, but board members also are expected to consider whether students have exhausted all alternatives to passing the subject-area tests. Students who fail the tests can opt for remediation to prepare for retakes, take an alternate qualifying test or pursue a special project.
Given the lengthy discussions among board members at their recent meetings on the appeals issue, we expect they'll give each appeal full consideration. We don't expect the board will be a rubber stamp. Thousands of high school graduates have spent the last four or five years meeting the ACE requirements. Absent truly special circumstances, waivers should be difficult to come by.
A board-granted waiver should be the alternative of last resort. Anything less will weaken the law and dilute the message to students that policymakers believe most students can and will achieve, if given opportunity and support.
A tough-love approach by the board will be a bitter pill for all involved, including students, their parents and school officials. But it isn't worse or more painful than sending students out into the world ill-prepared for the workforce or higher education.