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Use of Competency Tests Subject to Legal Challenge

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Bloomington, Ind--Legal as well as scientific considerations may shape the design and uses of minimum-competency tests for students, two Indiana University researchers suggested here last week.

The validity of such tests is questioned in the courts with increasing frequency, said the professors, speaking at the university's annual conference on education research. The reason, they said, is that the tests are often used as the sole basis for determining a child's educational future: whether he will graduate, be promoted, or be placed in a remedial class.

"Is the technology sophisticated enough? There are questions about the arbitrary nature of cutoff scores, the validity of different test forms, and the reliability of test scores in general," said Robert Wolf, an education professor at the university and one of the organizers of a national study of minimum-competency testing that culminated in a televised debate last fall.

"The real question now is the criticality of the decisions being made on the basis of minimum-competency tests," Mr. Wolf said.

"The litigation is only in its infant stage, and it seems destined to proliferate," added Martha M. McCarthy, an associate professor in the university's school of education who specializes in education law. "All the allegations about the substance of the tests--about reliability and racial bias--came about because of the way the tests were used."

The best-known of the lawsuits on testing is Debra P. v. Turlington, in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found Florida's "functional-literacy" test valid, but prohibited its use as a graduation requirement until all vestiges of past racial segregation are eliminated and until the state can prove that the material on the test has been taught in the schools.

The latter issue--termed "curricular validity"--has "tremendous implications," according to the researchers.

"It is so rooted in political, legislative, and legalistic terms, but at its very core is a debate over educational philosophy: Who is accountable? What do we want children to know?" Mr. Wolf said.

There is no research proving that certain skills are "critical" to students' future success, Mr. Wolf asserted. Thus, he and Ms. McCarthy said, any skill for promotion or graduation might be subject to challenge.

"Some people say it's going to be very difficult, or even impossible, for schools and districts to prove curricular validity," Ms. McCarthy added.

"Until the judiciary is satisfied that such tests are accurate measures of what has been taught and what should be learned," she said, "multiple indicators, rather than a single test score, seem likely to be required in making judgments that affect students' educational futures."

Three other cases involving handicapped students, Ms. McCarthy suggested, may prove even more influential than Debra P. in shaping testing policy--for all students, not just the handicapped.

In a Georgia case, handicapped students claimed that the use of a competency test as a graduation requirement violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which holds that students may not be denied educational opportunities solely on the basis of handicaps.

Graduation Requirements

A federal district court judge in that case ruled last year that Section 504 does not require that the students be awarded diplomas if they have not satisfied the graduation requirements. But he added that the students' rights may have been violated if they were erroneously placed in special-education classes and thus denied the opportunity to meet graduation requirements.

In contrast, a New York State judge found last year that handicapped students who had completed the individual educational programs designed for them, but had not passed the required examinations, were entitled to diplomas.

A third case, in Illinois, has yet to be decided. In that suit, handicapped students have sought both their diplomas and $1 million in damages, claiming that their special-education classes did not cover the material that was included on the high-school "exit" test.

These cases raise serious questions, Ms. McCarthy said, about "double standards"--one set of diploma requirements for disabled children and another for those who are not handicapped.

Furthermore, Ms. McCarthy noted, students who fail the examinations might assert a right to summer school or more years of schooling at public expense. And, she said, competency testing, because it lends credence to the "measurability" of educational attainment, might lead to a new wave of educational-malpractice suits. Such suits have been unsuccessful up to now, largely because the courts have been reluctant to specify the instructional responsibilities of schools.--P.C.

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