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Barred at the Gate

State sued over Gateway exams.



Latricia Wilson should have graduated from Westside High School in 2002. Though she completed all of her coursework, Wilson did not receive her high school diploma because she failed the state's Algebra I Gateway exam.

Last month, Wilson filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the State Board of Education to discontinue the use of the Gateway as a graduation requirement. Wilson was diagnosed with a learning disability and would like to see alternative testing that takes learning disabilities into consideration.

"We filed on behalf of the students of Tennessee who are similarly situated," says Javier Bailey, Wilson's attorney. "I believe it's unconstitutional to have a standardized test of this nature without recognizing the fact that some students have disabilities."

Since the 2001-2002 school year, passing standardized end-of-course Gateway tests has been a state requirement for graduating high school. Students must pass the algebra Gateway exam, as well as exams in English and biology.

In 1999, Wilson was diagnosed with a math disability and issued an Individual Education Plan (IEP), a list of accommodations required for students with special education needs. However, Wilson contends that the Gateway exam did not take her special accommodations into account.

"I was taking a math resource class, but the rest of my classes were normal," Wilson says. "On the Gateway, I was tested at a higher level in math while I was taking classes at a lower level."

Rachel Woods, a spokesperson for the state Department of Education, says special education needs are taken into consideration with Gateway exams.

"I think the lawsuit is less about the Gateway and more about Memphis City Schools (MCS) not providing accommodations that are in an IEP for particular students," Woods says.

Shawn Pachucki, a spokesperson for MCS, says the school system has no comment.

Because she failed the exam, Wilson received a special education diploma, a certificate that is not accepted for entrance at most colleges and technical schools.

Wilson had planned on attending cosmetology school to become a television makeup artist. But three weeks into her training at the New Wave Hair Academy, Wilson was told the school's corporate office would not accept her special education diploma. Other schools, like Southwest Tennessee Community College and ITT Tech, would not accept her either.

In the 2004-2005 school year, 576 MCS students received special education diplomas. That's roughly 10 percent of the students who finished their high school coursework. "The Gateway exams create an even playing field across the state for all students," Woods says. "It ensures that the Tennessee diploma means something. If you take away that requirement, some students may pass courses just because they have an easy teacher who wants to get them out the door."

But for Wilson, the test has created a major hurdle.

"This is something that's holding students back from moving forward," Wilson says. "It's holding me back from getting a job, and I can't get into college. Yet I need college to make a decent living."

The court is currently awaiting a response from the state.

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