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Curriculum Is Focus in Probe Of Ohio Exam

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The U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights will scrutinize the adequacy of Ohio public schools' curricula as it investigates charges that the state's high school exit exam violates the civil rights of minority students, who fail it in disproportionate numbers.

Treating disparities in educational quality between school districts as a potential civil-rights violation represents a new direction for the federal agency.

It also raises eyebrows among observers who have worried about how much authority federal officials might wield as the country moves toward national standards for how and what schools teach.

"I would think the general public would be up in arms if we lose this one opportunity at accountability,'' Ted Sanders, the Ohio superintendent of schools, said last week, referring to the exit test. "Every state that is even thinking about setting standards has to be watching this and wondering how high we can set expectations.''

Nineteen other states also have exit tests.

An O.C.R. official confirmed that the agency will move beyond the issue of whether Ohio's test--intended to insure that graduating seniors have acquired 9th-grade reading, writing, mathematics, and citizenship skills--is racially or culturally biased.

Instead, they will try to determine whether the state's schools equip students with the knowledge needed to pass the test and receive a diploma.

"We are not challenging the test,'' said Kenneth A. Mines, the director of the O.C.R.'s Chicago regional office, which is handling the case. "The issue is whether students are adequately prepared.''

At latest count, just over 10,000 Ohio seniors have yet to pass at least one portion of the test. Most retook it last month and will have a final chance--their ninth since entering high school--next month. The students, who make up 9 percent of the state's high school seniors, would be the first to be denied diplomas for not passing the exam.

In a letter sent last month to inform state officials of the fast-track investigation, Mr. Mines said two formal complaints and news accounts of concerns about the test persuaded O.C.R. officials of the need "to determine whether minority students will be denied high school diplomas on the basis of race or national origin because they have not had fair opportunities to learn.''

The phrase "opportunity to learn'' ties the Ohio case neatly to the debate that has raged this year on Capitol Hill over whether the federal government should try to prescribe the resources and services schools should provide to students.

As lawmakers debated the Goals 2000: Educate America Act--which President Clinton signed last week--some sought to balance its requirements that states set curriculum-content and student-performance standards with opportunity-to-learn standards for schools. In the end, the new law made setting opportunity standards voluntary.

A National Curriculum?

While proponents have argued that such measures are needed to insure children the foundation for meeting high performance standards, critics say they could open the door to litigation that would inhibit standards-setting. Observers see such signs in the Ohio probe, which could force the state to abandon its test if it cannot insure the adequacy of all its schools.

The Ohio test has also come under fire in a pending federal desegregation case in Cleveland, where plaintiffs have argued that it is unfair to give private school students until 1999 to pass the proficiency test, which was launched in 1990.

"The concept could be used to destroy standards instead of building them,'' said Diane S. Ravitch, a senior research scholar at New York University and a former assistant secretary of education in the Bush Administration. "This could become the battering ram against holding students accountable for anything.''

Civil-rights experts said the O.C.R. review raises issues similar to those explored in Debra P. v. Turlington. That case, filed in 1979, challenged a Florida graduation test. The federal courts postponed the implementation of the test until 1983, when all of the state's schoolchildren had attended classes in desegregated schools that are equal "in a constitutional sense.''

A New Direction

But the Ohio case represents a new direction for the O.C.R., according to Cynthia Brown, the director of the Resource Center for Educational Equity at the Council of Chief State School Officers.

A former assistant secretary for civil rights in the Carter Administration, Ms. Brown said she has long believed that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964--which bars racial bias--could be used to deal with school-quality issues.

"If, to pass a 9th-grade test, you need to take algebra I, and there are racial patterns to how schools offer those courses, then using the law to look at that is appropriate,'' Ms. Brown said.

A review of the Ohio test done last year by the state's Legislative Office of Education Oversight--which recommended continuing its use--concluded that differences in what schools taught were reflected in students' scores.

"It appears that some students have had the opportunity to learn the required knowledge and skills before the 9th grade; most others of the class of 1994 are receiving this opportunity during their high school years,'' the report said.

"Differences in passing rates can reflect differences in the opportunity to learn,'' it said.

But Gregory J. Cizek, an assistant professor at the University of Toledo who has scrutinized the test, said he doubts that any high school seniors have not been exposed to the 9th-grade material on the test, no matter what school they attend. Indeed, he said, the test may cause the material to be "overtaught.''

"If the test reveals deficiencies, it shows that something is going on that is not allowing students to learn that material,'' Mr. Cizek said. "Any test should discriminate between who knows the material and who doesn't.''

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