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N.Y. Chief Bars the Use of Test Scores To Set Eligibility for Enrichment Classes

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Schools in New York State may not use test scores as the only basis for determining students' eligibility for enrichment programs, Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol has ruled.

Acting in a case brought by the mother of a 7th-grade student who was denied access to three enrichment programs on the basis of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, Mr. Sobol determined that the use of test scores as a "screening device" for such programs is "arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to sound educational policy."

"[B]ecause the results of a single test may be adversely affected by factors such as anxiety, illness, test-taking ability, ability to process directions, or general distractibility (which have little to do with ability or achievement)," Mr. Sobol argues in a four-page opinion, "use of standardized-test scores as a screening device may serve to exclude pupils prematurely who are otherwise eligible."

The commissioner also noted that the action of the student's school contradicted guidelines for the test included in the test publisher's manual, which state that it "should be used to supplement, not to replace teacher judgment."

Norman J. Chachkin, a lawyer for the naacp Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which submitted a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the student's mother, said Mr. Sobol's action was "significant" because of the authority he has under state law to overrule local school-board actions.

"It has precedential value," he said.

D. Monty Neill, deputy director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, added that the ruling may encourage other parents to step forward and challenge decisions made on the basis of test scores.

Most test publishers, he said, include similar warnings against misuse of test scores in their materials. "Unfortunately, they are more honored in the breach than they ought to be," Mr. Neill said.

The case decided last month began last spring when Deshala Dixon, a student at Suffern (N.Y.) Junior High School in the Ramapo Central School District, was notified that she would not be admitted to enrichment programs in mathematics, English, and social studies.

According to the girl's mother, Alexandreena Dixon, Deshala was "disqualified" from the programs because she failed to attain the cutoff score on the Iowa Test required for entry. Other factors, such as recommendations and grades, were ignored, Ms. Dixon claimed.

"In short," Ms. Dixon wrote in her petition to Mr. Sobol, "the Iowa Test, used as such a criteria, is used to arbitrarily disqualify students from the program, in that it is strictly used to evaluate a student's potential for success without regards for the student's grade-point average, academic achievement, teacher recommendation, and other relevant factors."

School officials, however, denied Ms. Dixon's allegations that their action was arbitrary.

"The purpose of the program,"4Charles Grottenthaler, the district's superintendent, wrote in his response to Ms. Dixon's petition, "is to establish a rational basis upon which to select students ready for enriched programs and not to arbitrarily exclude students from the programs."

Moreover, Mr. Grottenthaler said, Deshala Dixon "would not be qualified even if all criteria were considered simultaneously."

But Mr. Sobol, in his decision, rejected that position, and ordered school officials to redetermine the girl's eligibility for the enriched social-studies program. He acknowledged, however, that she would not qualify for the math and English programs.

Mr. Sobol also ordered the district to revise its policy of using itbs scores to determine eligibility for enrichment programs.

"I conclude," he wrote, "that respondents' policy which denies a student the possibility of further consideration for placement in an enrichment program solely on the student's failure to achieve above a certain score on a subpart of the itbs is not a legitimate measure for screening a student's capacity for success."

The school district may appeal the ruling in state court.

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