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Florida Awaits Decision in Lawsuit Against Competency Test

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Tampa, Fla--For six long days this month, U.S. District Judge George Carr listened as lawyers and educators argued over whether the state of Florida can legally withhold high-school diplomas from students who cannot pass a functional-literacy test designed for 8th graders.

Florida educators say Judge Carr's ruling on that point--expected to be handed down before May--will have an important effect on minimum-competency testing programs both here and across the country.

The case, Debra P. v. Turlington, was filed in 1978 on behalf of nine black students, who alleged that the functional-literacy test was racially discriminatory.

If Judge Carr rules that the state can legally withhold diplomas from students who can't pass the test, approximately 3,000 Florida students, 80 percent of them black, will receive a "certificate of completion" this year instead of a diploma.

The certificate signifies only that the student completed 12 years of public schooling. It cannot be used for admission into a state university or for entrance into many Florida community-college programs.

Withholding Diplomas

If Judge Carr decides, however, that withholding diplomas based on the test scores violates the constitutional rights of students, his ruling could inhibit the development of minimum-competency testing programs similar to Florida's. Currently, at least 35 states are developing some form of competency testing for their students. North Carolina, according to the Education Commission of the States, is the only other state in which students must pass an "exit" test to receive a diploma.

"This is an extremely difficult case ... with many implications," Judge Carr said after both sides had finished their closing arguments. "I'm going to have to study the testimony and evidence very carefully."

Both pro- and anti-test lawyers agreed that most of Judge Carr's attention will be focused on one question: Do Florida schools teach the 24 different mathematics and communications skills--all of them at an 8th-grade level or lower--that a student must master if he or she is to achieve the 70-percent score necessary to past the test?

In 1981, a federal appeals-court panel told Judge Carr that Florida could not withhold diplomas unless his answer to that question is yes.

In an attempt to convince the judge on that point during the six-day trial, lawyers for Florida's Department of Education produced three expert witnesses and a 32,000-page study that they claimed "proves" that all students have at least an "equal opportunity" to master the skills tested on the exam.

Lawyers representing a group of Hillsborough County students who failed the test in 1978 disagreed.

Teacher and Student Surveys

They attacked the studies--which include surveys of more than 50,000 Florida teachers and students and reports of visits to each of the state's 67 school districts--as "hearsay" and hence irrelevant. They also produced two experts who told Judge Carr that fewer students would be failing the functional-literacy test if Florida schools were in fact "teaching" all of the skills rather than just "exposing" their students to them.

W. James Popham, a specialist in testing from the University of California at Los Angeles and the author of the state study, was the state's chief witness. Through two days of testimony, Mr. Popham maintained that the study--especially the reports by teachers in it--proves that all students "had an ample opportunity" to master the skills on the examination.

For support, the state also called on Robert Gagne, a professor of education at Florida State University. He told the court that just because students fail the test does not mean the state is not teaching the requisite skills. Mr. Gagne said, for example, that students may not learn a specific skill if they miss class or if they are bored by the material.

He also said such distractions as video games could be partially responsible for the relatively high number of failures. According to Florida statistics, approximately 2.5 percent of all Florida students fail the test on all of the five attempts permitted by the state.

Anti-test lawyers, most of them from the Center for Law and Education in Cambridge, Mass., countered with two experts of their own. The Center for Law and Education is funded through the U.S. Legal Services Corporation, the federal government's $241-million effort to provide legal help for the poor.

'Equal Opportunity'

Robert Linn, a professor of education at University of Illinois, testified that the failure rate on the test should be much lower if all students actually are receiving the "equal opportunity" that the state claims.

Mr. Linn said, for example, that the state's contention that a student who has mastered a specific skill sometime during his academic career is adequately prepared to demonstrate that skill on the examination was "just plain wrong."

"It's not enough," Mr. Linn said.

Robert Calfee, an education psychologist from Stanford University, said a statistical analysis of the state's study indicates that some of the skills are being taught in Florida schools more often than others are. Mr. Calfee said the teacher surveys, for example, show a difference of up to 15-percent from school district to school district in the number of test-related mathematics skills taught in junior high schools.

'Vestiges of Segregation'

Before Judge Carr makes his ruling, he probably will hold one more hearing in the five-year battle over the functional-literacy test. In 1981, the appeals court also asked him to review the "vestiges of segregation" argument presented by the plaintiffs' lawyers.

Since the test was introduced in 1977, black students have failed at a far higher rate than whites. In 1979, Judge Carr ruled that the test itself was not discriminatory, but postponed his decision on the withholding of diplomas until Hillsborough County seniors could be said to be the products of a totally desegregated school system.

This is the first year in which that is the case.

Special Obstacles to Learning

The lawyers opposing the test, however, have argued that "vestiges of segregation"--such as higher suspension rates and additional busing burdens--continue to present special obstacles to learning for black students and affect their performance on the test.

Judge Carr said he will decide later this month whether to hear additional arguments on that question.

Of the massive study presented by the state, the judge said, "I do intend to look at a great deal of this data. Hearing about it is no substitute for holding it, feeling it.''

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