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Controversial Probe of Ohio's Exit Exams Nearing End

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Ohio and the U.S. Education Department are nearing an agreement that would end a federal investigation of the state's high school exit examination, according to state officials.

The federal agency's office for civil rights has suspended its investigation and will likely close it down as part of the final agreement, according to Robert Moore, the assistant state superintendent for public instruction in Ohio.

"We're at a point where we are going to reach some conclusion shortly," he said.

In a recent letter to Republican members of Congress, who had opposed the investigation, an O.C.R. official suggested that progress had been made on an agreement that would address civil-rights officials' concerns.

In the letter, which was received on Sept. 13, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Norma V. Cantu says that state and federal officials have been "discussing a mutually agreeable process for resolving testing concerns" that the O.C.R. had raised.

Ms. Cantu also notes that "during this promising period of negotiations" investigators would not seek additional information from Ohio. The state had balked at providing the 1.6 million student records requested by the O.C.R.

An O.C.R. spokesman declined to comment on the case last week, saying it remains open, and none of the officials involved in the negotiations would discuss what the terms of an agreement might be.

A High-Profile Case

Launched in March, the probe focused on the state's high school exit exams, which test graduating students for 9th-grade proficiency in reading, writing, mathematics, and civics.

At the time, a disproportionate number of minority students had failed to pass the exams. O.C.R. officials said then that the investigation would not look at racial or cultural bias in the exams, but at whether Ohio gave minority students the education they needed to pass the test. (See Education Week, April 6, 1994.)

Such a probe was a departure for the Education Department and raised questions about whether it has the power to investigate such "opportunity to learn" questions.

Federal antidiscrimination laws give the O.C.R. the power to examine school resources and services if they can be tied to discrimination based on race or national origin, Administration officials and civil-rights experts contend.

But critics of the investigation have argued that the probe interferes in decisions that are traditionally the responsibility of state and local officials.

Conflict With Goals 2000?

Republicans in the U.S. House who have raised objections have also cited what they see as a conflict between the O.C.R. investigation and the Clinton Administration's push for national standards, as embodied in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which was signed into law last spring.

"The Department of Education finds itself in the contradictory position of advocating high standards on the one hand and challenging a test that attempts to hold students accountable on the other," Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., wrote in a column he has submitted to The Washington Times.

Ohio officials, meanwhile, have denied that their tests or school programs are racially biased.

Students can take the exams up to nine times, and the discrepancy between the failure rate of minority and white students has now closed to where it is statistically insignificant, according to state officials.

When the O.C.R. began its investigation, 93 percent of African-American students and 95 percent of Asian-Americans and Hispanics in the class of 1994 had passed the civics test, compared with 98 percent of white seniors. By May, however, at least 98 percent of seniors in all ethnic groups had passed.

The major remaining disparity is in pass rates on the mathematics test. After last November's round of testing, 79 percent of black seniors had passed. By May, the rate was up to 91 percent, but it still lagged behind the 98 percent rate of whites.

Results from the August tests are not yet available.

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