A last-minute decision by California education leaders cost scores of students around the state — including at least a dozen in San Francisco — a final chance to graduate from high school and go to a four-year college this fall.

The students haven’t passed a test that they can’t take anymore.

They were accepted to four-year colleges earlier this year, but first needed to pass the California High School Exit Exam to get a diploma. The problem? The state no longer offers the Exit Exam.

In June, state education officials canceled the final administration of the exam, which had been scheduled for July, while the Legislature considers a measure that would suspend the test as a graduation requirement for at least three years.

The move left thousands of students who failed earlier attempts to pass the test in limbo — stripped of their last shot at graduating before the beginning of college classes.

A handful of students in this predicament took their case to the San Francisco school board Tuesday night, bringing many adults in the room to tears. Some district officials said they were caught off-guard, unaware that students were turned away from college because they can’t take the Exit Exam.

Requirements all met

The students “met all of the requirements and took all the steps necessary for admission to a four-year state college, including challenging coursework and a grade of C or better, to only find that an obsolete test is holding them back from their dreams,” said San Francisco Superintendent Richard Carranza.

Krissia Martinez, 19, who was among the students at the board meeting, pleaded with district officials to give her a diploma or let her take the exam.

Martinez was counting on taking the exam in July along with about 5,000 other students across the state. The high school senior had passed all of her classes and the math portion of the Exit Exam.

She was just six points shy of the 350 required to pass the English portion the last time she took the test, in May. She needed to answer one or two more questions correctly.

About 25 percent of those who take the test in July pass it, according to results from previous years, and Martinez believed she would be among them. She never stopped studying for the exam even as she participated in a summer program for incoming freshmen at San Francisco State, where she was accepted earlier this year.

University officials rescinded that offer late last week.

“I want my diploma because I can’t attend college without it,” Martinez said Wednesday. “I can go there. I can succeed there.”

Like Martinez, many of the California students in this situation are newcomers, who arrived from other countries within the past few years and struggled to pass the English portion of the Exit Exam.

The state did not put a limit on how many times a student could take the test. Martinez, who attended San Francisco International High School, believed the seventh time would be the charm, but she never got the chance to prove it.

Exit Exam flawed

The test’s cancellation came amid larger questions about the Exit Exam, which state officials acknowledge isn’t aligned with what’s being taught in schools. It doesn’t match up with the new Common Core standards, which emphasize critical thinking rather than rote learning.

That’s why the Legislature is looking to suspend the test as a graduation requirement. If that happens, Martinez and others like her would officially get a diploma on Jan. 1, 2016, when the measure goes into effect.

The state measure would suspend the graduation requirement for the classes of 2015, 2016 and 2017.

College-bound kids aren’t the only ones waiting to see what happens. Those heading into the military or job-training programs typically need to graduate high school first, as well as some students in the juvenile justice system, whose release is dependent on a diploma, said San Francisco school board Vice President Matt Haney. The Exit Exam could be holding them up as well.

State education officials could have offered the test in July, but since the contract with the Bay Area company that administers the exam, Educational Testing Service, expired in May, they opted to cancel the July exam rather than renew the contract.

“Our hope is that the few students who find themselves in this situation will only have to defer their dreams of attending the college of their choice for one semester,” said Keric Ashley, deputy superintendent at the state Department of Education. “In the meantime, there are other options available to these students, including our California Community Colleges. I received excellent preparation at my local community college before attending university.”

‘Failure’ of the system

Haney said the state’s response was unacceptable.

These students “have gone through war to get here to the United States, to overcome incredible odds to graduate high school, and then be told they should just wait?” he said. “It is literally the height of ridiculousness and a complete failure by the bureaucracy and political system.”

In San Francisco, district officials are trying to find a way to help the students who have been accepted to a four-year college but have not passed the Exit Exam. They could hand out diplomas, though that violates current law.

Sacramento lawmakers could push through urgent legislation — but they don’t return from recess until Monday, and many colleges start classes in just over a week. Or, San Francisco district officials suggested, the universities could accept the students.

“While I have no doubt that these students are tenacious, delaying the start of college can lead to students not ever going or completing,” Carranza said. “Shouldn’t we being doing everything we can to remove a barrier that doesn’t need to be there?”

Haney wants the district to take a stand, even if it means inviting state ire.

“The school district has a responsibility to stand with our students and fix this problem even if the state won’t,” he said. “I think we should give them a diploma. If the state comes back to us and says you can't do that, we say we had to.”

Jill Tucker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: jtucker@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @jilltucker


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