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U.S. Claims Texas Teachers' Skills Test Is Legal

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Washington--Arguing for the first time in a case involving the legality of teacher-competency tests, the Justice Department last week claimed that a federal judge erred in temporarily barring Texas from requiring students to pass a basic-skills test to enter state-approved teacher-training programs.

In a brief filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the department's top civil-rights official, William Bradford Reynolds, asked for a reversal of the district court's August ruling.

The Justice Department asserted in the brief that Texas's use of the test--which blacks and Hispanics have failed at a disproportionately higher rate than whites since it was first given in March 1984--was constitutional and violated no federal civil-rights laws.

In granting the temporary injunction, U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice said the evidence in the case--United States v. State of Texas--"strongly" suggested that, by using the preprofessional skills test (ppst), the state intended to discriminate against minority groups and thus violated the students' constitutional right to equal protection under the law.

But the Justice Department brief argued that "the available evidence does not permit an inference of discriminatory intent."

To establish a constitutional violation, it must be shown that the state's use of the test was motivated by racially discriminatory intent.

The brief asserted that the state's 1981 legislation requiring the basic-skills test was intended "to improve teacher quality, not to diminish the number of minority teachers."

In addition, the department argued that the district judge lacked jurisdiction over the matter. Because the civil-rights groups and college students who filed the complaint did so in a case involving the desegregation of public elementary and secondary schools, the Justice brief said, the district court was not at liberty "to limit the state's authority in the field of higher education."

"Since the ppst is used in colleges and universities, and not in the elementary and secondary schools, [previous court orders in the case] did not give the district court jurisdiction to review the appellees'' challenge to it," the department said.

In their complaint, the civil-rights groups and college students contend that the test does fall within the court's jurisdiction because it deprives minority elementary- and high-school students of black and Hispanic role models.

Ruling 'Legally Erroneous'

Mr. Reynolds, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, said in a separate written statement that the district court's ruling was "legally erroneous on all points" and that Judge Justice, "in the name of desegregation, had required the state to give minority teachers hollow certification and meaningless 'paper' credentials in order to 'help' them."

The educational problems of minorities are not solved "by holding them to a double standard of education and foreclosing inquiry into whether they possess the basic skills required of all others in the profession they seek to enter," Mr. Reynolds argued.

These problems are solved, he continued, "by improving the educational system to provide all students with their basic academic needs."

In filing the brief, the Justice Department enters the case on the side of the Texas Education Agency, which has appealed the injunction to the federal appellate court. This is the first time the department has entered a case involving the legality of teacher testing, officials said.

'An Insult'

Camilo Perez, a staff lawyer for Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy Project who helped represent the three civil-rights groups and 14 students who went to the courts to block the testing program, called the federal intervention "an insult to the rights and intelligence of the kids we represent."

Mr. Perez said the state's use of the preprofessional skills test serves to "decimate the potential minority teaching pool" at a time when there is already an "inadequate number of minority role models in the Texas classrooms."

"By going into this case supporting the state, the department is saying this testing is fine, that it's okay to resegregate the teaching staffs throughout the Texas public schools," Mr. Perez said.

Since the test was first given in March 1984, 78 percent of the8blacks, 66 percent of the Hispanics, and 27 percent of the whites who took the test failed it. The test Texas uses was developed by the Educational Testing Service.

Intervention in Earlier Case

Last July, in an attempt to prevent the state from further using the test, the naacp, the G.I. Forum, the League of United Latin-American Citizens, and 14 black and Hispanic students who had failed the test intervened in the Texas case, the Justice Department's 14-year-old suit to desegregate the state's elementary and secondary schools, seeking a preliminary injunction until a full trial on the matter is held.

In granting the preliminary injunction, Judge Justice cautioned that it did not invalidate the test. If the case is not settled in the plaintiffs' favor, he wrote, students could still have to pass the ppst to become certified.

But he also stated that "the indifference displayed by the defendants to the massive adverse impact of the ppst requirement, and the lack of any coordinated attempt to institute an organized program of remediation targeted at helping students pass the ppst, seems to have sprung from an attitude that minority students were themselves to blame for their poor performance."

Appeal Slated for December

The plaintiffs' case is not scheduled to go to trial in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas until February. But the state's appeal of the preliminary injunction is slated to be heard by the federal appellate court in December.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs have requested that the appellate court refrain from acting on the appeal until the district court gives the case a full hearing, Mr. Perez said.

Terri Anderson, a spokesman for the Texas Education Agency, said the state was "pleasantly surprised that the Justice Department would file a brief in support of the state's case."

"We think the test is a very important part of the our overall effort to improve education in the state," Ms. Anderson said. "Teachers have to know how to read, write, and compute to be qualified to teach students."

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