Published Online:

Civil-Rights Panel Investigating I.Q. Test Ban in California

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Washington--The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has been drawn into a California woman's complicated challenge to a federal court order barring that state's schools from administering iq tests to black students.

Mary Amaya, a Fontana, Calif., mother who says she is fighting for a parent's right to request the test for her child, told commission members her story this month at the panel's invitation.

Her appearance had been orchestrated by William B. Allen, a black conservative who was appointed to the commission by President Reagan and who has championed Ms. Amaya's cause.

Her struggle began when school officials told her they could not give the test to her 15-year-old son, Demond. Ms. Amaya wanted him tested to help diagnose and deal with the cause of his school problems.

The denial was based on a directive from the state department of education, issued in response to the September 1986 ruling in Larry P. v. Wilson Riles, a 15-year-old class action. Finding the tests to be "culturally biased," U.S. District Court Judge Robert F. Peckham banned their use by schools to assess blacks.

"Regardless of what you think about the test," Ms. Amaya told the eight-member civil-rights panel, "the test is not the issue. My son is being denied something on the basis of the color of his skin."

Because Demond is of mixed parentage--Ms. Amaya is Hispanic; Demond's father is black--some have suggested, she said, that she classify him as Hispanic so he can qualify for the test. But she said she recoiled at that suggestion because it would "make him ashamed" of his black heritage.

Intelligence tests were useful, Ms. Amaya said, in diagnosing the learning problems of her oldest child, who scored well on the tests. She challenged the assumption that black students' backgrounds necessarily cause them to do poorly on the tests.

"Blacks don't have a monopoly on the ghetto," she said, nor are all blacks "deprived of white culture."

Under a motion offered by Mr. Allen at a meeting last summer, the civil-rights panel agreed to expedite a proposed study on the validity and use of standardized tests.

An 'Easy Vote' Delayed

At the October meeting, Mr. Allen offered a resolution that would demand that the Justice Department investigate California's handling of the Larry P. case.

While some members of the commission said they sympathized with Ms. Amaya's plight, the panel tabled the Allen resolution in a 4-to-3 vote. It will review the case and explore other options at its Nov. 13 meeting.

Commissioner Mary Frances Berry said that while Ms. Amaya's dilemma ''tugs at the heart and could make a very easy vote," the panel is procedurally barred from taking on individual complaints at public forums. She urged the commission to complete its study on the "complicated issue" of testing before taking any action.

Ms. Berry also noted that test opponents and state officials were not present at the commission meeting to present their side of the case.

Commissioner Robert Destro also advised against acting solely on the basis of Ms. Amaya's complaint, saying that could be seen "as taking sides in a very hot controversy."

"I don't want to see us take sides before we do our study," he said.

According to Ms. Berry, the proposal for an investigation of California's response to the court ruling ignores the basis for that ruling: that the test had a discriminatory impact on blacks.

But Mr. Allen and the commission's chairman, Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., said the pivotal issue is whether access to the test should be restricted on the basis of race.

"How long can the government of California continue to divide people up in such a way that determines their access to the mainstream?" Mr. Pendleton asked.

Case's Legal Origins

The Larry P. case was filed in 1971 on behalf of six black elementary-school students in the San Fransisco Unified School District.

The plaintiffs charged that using the tests to place black students in classes for the "educable mentally retarded" violated federal statutes, as well as the equal-protection clauses of the state and federal constitutions.

They said use of the tests had led to the erroneous placement of disproportionate numbers of black students in emr classes, thus labeling them and limiting their future options.

In 1979, Judge Peckham found the intelligence tests culturally biased and ordered the state to stop using them for emr placement purposes. That ruling has since been upheld twice by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Judge Peckham's September 1986 amendment to the order extended the ban to encompass use of the tests for all categories of special-education services. A subsequent di8rective from the state department of education barred use of the tests with black children for any "special education-related purposes," including diagnostic or evaluation procedures, or as part of an individual education plan.

The department's legal office stated in a July opinion, however, that the ban did not apply to intelligence tests used to determine black students' eligibility for gifted and talented programs.

'Overly Broad'

Mr. Allen, a professor of government at Harvey Mudd College, contends that the ban on iq testing for black students is overly broad. He has asked Califoria officials to draft legislation allowing schools to give the tests at parents' request.

Although he has not yet received responses to that request from the governor, attorney general, orleaders of the California legislature, Bill Honig, the state's superintendent of public instruction, said in an Aug. 20 response that he intended to "stand by" the original directive, "notwithstanding a parent's consent and/or request."

Barry Zolotar, a staff lawyer for the state education agency, said his office had drafted a proposal for Mr. Honig's review that would have allowed the test to be given to black students at parents' request, but that Mr. Honig "decided not to seek to modify the court's order."

Mr. Honig stated in his letter that he did not believe the iq test ban violated parents' civil rights. And he noted that current law prohibits basing special-education placements on a "sole criterion" and allows for a variety of indices, which do "not have to include iq test scores."

Reopening Pandora's Box

Ms. Amaya's challenge, which has attracted nationwide attention, may reopen a Pandora's Box of issues that many authorities had hoped were settled with the resolution of the Larry P. case.

In trying to secure the right of parents to request the tests, said Harold E. Dent, chairman of the testing committee of the Association of Black Psychologists, Ms. Amaya is returning to territory Judge Peckham "already slammed the door on" in his most recent order.

The judge barred such exceptions, the psychologist said, because "the testing industry and the state of Cal4ifornia could not demonstrate to the satisfaction of the courts that the tests were not biased."

If Ms. Amaya wants her son to be tested, Mr. Dent added, she has "a perfect right to go out and use [her] money to have him tested" by a private testing service.

But public money, he said, "should not be used to further discriminatory practices."

Mr. Dent supports the use of alternative assessment tools for black pupils, but others, said Donald Bersoff, counsel for the American Psychological Association, "feel those alternatives are more subjective and can lead to more misjudgments than the original iq test." The apa has no formal position on the use of iq tests.

But Mr. Bersoff said that "it doesn't make sense to say that administering an iq test and deriving a score from it is inherently harmful; it depends on the sophistication of the psychologist" and the school system's use of the data.

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories