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Federal Judge Promises Early Ruling On Linking Diplomas to Florida Test

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Tampa, Fla--After the second of two hearings on the question, a federal judge here has promised to decide before May 19 whether Florida educators can legally withhold high-school diplomas from students who cannot pass a functional-literacy examination.

At the end of the most recent hearing late last month, U.S. District Judge George Carr acknowledged that his decision in the case of Debra P. v. Turlington will have widespread ramifications.

If Judge Carr agrees that the state can withhold diplomas from students who cannot pass the test--which Florida officials say is written on about an 8th-grade level--as many as 3,800 high-school seniors will not line up for commencement exercises this year. State officials estimate about 60 percent of those students will be black.

Widespread Ramifications

If the judge agrees with civil-rights lawyers who have been fighting the diploma sanction for more than five years, educators across the country say the decision could put a major barrier in the way of their efforts to develop minimum-competency-testing programs. Currently, at least 35 states have or are developing testing programs, but few link test results to a diploma.

In March, Judge Carr listened to more than a week of testimony on whether Florida schools actually teach all the 24 mathematics and communication skills tested by the examination. (See Education Week, March 9 and 16, 1983.)

On April 25 and 26, Judge Carr took evidence on a different question: Does the fact that black students in Florida are suspended, expelled, and placed in programs for the mentally handicapped at disproportionate rates mean that they do not have an equal opportunity to pass the exam?

Roger Rice, one of three civil-rights lawyers representing a group of black Hillsborough County students who were unable to pass the test in 1979, told Judge Carr that it does.

Even though blacks make up only 22 percent of the state's student population, Mr. Rice said, they account for 38 percent of the suspensions and 60 percent of the students placed in classes for the mentally handicapped.

Mr. Rice said these "vestiges of segregation" show that "there are still lingering racial stereotypes in Florida schools," and he produced two expert witnesses to support that contention.

In every one of the 13 Florida school districts that he visited as a human-relations consultant, testified Rod McDavis, a University of Florida education professor, students or counselors told him that teachers called their black students "dumb, stupid, ignorant, or retarded."

'Dirty Little Animals'

Na'im Akbar, a clinical psychologist at Florida State University, told Judge Carr that many white teachers in Florida refuse to have physical contact with black students because the teachers consider blacks to be "dirty little animals."

William Dorsey, a lawyer for the state education department, said those charges "bordered on the absurd."

Even if there is some racial stereotyping in Florida schools--and Mr. Dorsey denied that had been proven in court--he said there is no proof that the victims of the stereotyping are failing the examination.

Barbara Lerner, a clinical psychologist and lawyer from Princeton, N.J., told Judge Carr that requiring black students to pass a functional-literacy test will help them academically, even if Florida's long history of segregated schools has put additional barriers in their way.

The state's schools were integrated by law in 1971.

"The threat of not graduating has to encourage students, black or white ... to work harder in school," Ms. Lerner said.

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