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Florida Woman Gets Diploma in Accord on Exit-Test Suit

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Florida education officials have settled one challenge to the state's high-school "exit" tests by awarding a diploma to a student who failed the basic-skills test three years ago.

Under the terms of the settlement approved by U.S. District Judge George C. Carr of Tampa, Renita Love, who was an honor-roll student in the Pinellas County school system but failed one of the test's two sections, received her diploma. In a suit filed in 1980, Ms. Love claimed that the test was racially discriminatory and that she had not been given adequate notice of the test requirement for a standard diploma.

In the 1978-79 school year, Florida began requiring that students pass a two-part competency examination in order to receive a standard diploma. The first section of the State Student Assessment Test, known as ssat-I, tests proficiency in reading, writing, and mathematics. The second part, ssat-II, tests students' ability to apply the basic skills to "everyday situations."

The basic-skills test, which was developed by the state, is similar to those used in several other states. In Florida, students who complete all other requirements but fail the tests are issued "certificates of completion."

In 1979, according to court documents, 1,125 students including Ms. Love were denied diplomas after failing the basic-skills test. In 1980, 290 were denied diplomas. In both years, the number of black students failing the test was "grossly disproportionate," according to lawyers for Ms. Love.

Certification Refused

Judge Carr refused to certify the case, Love v. Turlington, as a class action on behalf of all black students. Ms. Love's lawyers intend to appeal that portion of the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

The case is similar in many respects and closely linked to Debra P. v. Turlington, a suit challenging the "practical-applications" section of the Florida examination. The Debra P. case, a class action that has attracted national attention, makes identical claims of racial discrimination and insufficient notice to students. The U.S Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit last year enjoined the use of the practical-applications test and sent the case back to the trial court.

Judge Carr has scheduled hearings this winter on two issues related to the Debra P. case: whether the schools teach the material covered on the test and whether the vestiges of segregation have contributed to the disproportionate number of black students who have failed the test.

The reason Judge Carr denied class-action status in the Love case, according to William R. Dorsey Jr., deputy counsel to the Florida State Board of Education, was "a fundamental difference in the two tests." The law requires that school districts "make a particularized determination of whether the student had mastered the basic skills if they failed to show mastery on the basic-skills test." There is no such provision for the practical-application section contested in the Debra P. case, Mr. Dorsey said.

The use of the practical-application test as a prerequisite for a standard diploma has been enjoined until next year. The state department of education temporarily suspended the use of the basic-skills test last year, but it is in use again, Mr. Dorsey said.

"Under the circumstances, we felt it was more prudent to settle than to go ahead and incur the cost of litigation" in the Love case, Mr. Dorsey said. "We did not specifically admit to anything. There is no statement in the settlement document either way."

Diana Pullin, a lawyer for Ms. Love and for the plaintiffs in Debra P., said both cases involved "a broad assertion that the local district does not provide the kind of educational preparation that was needed to pass the test. It's what's offered to students before the point where they need remediation. The students' concern is that they haven't been provided a fair opportunity to learn."

Ms. Love's claims have been widely misconstrued as an assertion that students have a right to a diploma, said Ms. Pullin, who is affiliated with the Center for Law and Education in Cambridge, Mass.

"It was simply an interest in the expectation of a diploma if students had fulfilled requirements for graduation that they had been led to believe during their school careers were the requirements," Ms. Pullin said. "There's certainly not a right to a diploma, but there's certainly an interest in having the terms and conditions provided and maintained."

Ms. Pullin said that although several states have similar requirements for standard diplomas, others "have held off" pending the outcome of Debra P. and similar cases pending in Georgia, Illinois, New York, and California.

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