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No Racial Bias Found in Ohio's School Exit Test

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The U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights has agreed that Ohio's high school exit examination is not racially discriminatory.

But an agreement signed by Ohio and federal officials sends a strong signal that the agency will continue to treat unequal educational opportunities as a civil-rights violation when they result in unequal results on such high-stakes assessments.

Insuring Adequate Schooling

Under the Oct. 3 agreement, the state will continue to use its exam, which tests graduating students for 9th-grade proficiency in reading, writing, mathematics, and civics.

But the state has formally committed to continue its efforts to insure that all its students are adequately prepared for the test.

Those ongoing efforts convinced investigators that Ohio was working to insure minorities equal access to instruction, according to Kenneth A. Mines, who headed the probe for the O.C.R.

Key to the agreement was Ohio's commitment to monitor and even penalize school districts that do not adequately prepare students for the test, said Mr. Mines, the director of the O.C.R.'s Chicago office.

Ohio "will set the student standards," he said, "but they will take the necessary actions to insure that there is meaningful access to instructional programs without regard to race, color, or national origin."

The state will also report periodically to the O.C.R. on its test results.

Robert Moore, Ohio's assistant superintendent for public instruction, hailed the agreement, saying it requires the state to do nothing that it was not already doing.

Since 1992, the state has been working on developing standards geared to insuring that schools provide instruction to prepare students for the exit test as well as 4th-, 6th-, and 12-grade proficiency exams now being developed to complement it.

The state has also provided additional instruction to students who fail the exit test, a program it has agreed to continue.

A New Direction

"We were doing a lot of things that [the O.C.R.] had no idea we were doing until we sat down and talked about it," Mr. Moore said.

The state has always assumed that it had the responsibility to prepare all students to meet its standards, he said.

"Even in new sets of standards, the state will assure that the concepts that a student must know will be there and will be taught," he said.

Launched in March after the O.C.R. received complaints that minority students were failing Ohio's test in disproportionate numbers, the investigation was the agency's first review of an exit exam. (See Education Week, April 6, 1994.)

It has been watched closely for clues as to what role the federal government may assume as more states move to set standards for students and implement related testing programs.

The broad scope of the investigation--O.C.R. officials had requested extensive curriculum and funding data--prompted criticism from those who said the agency was interfering in traditional state responsibilities.

Under the agreement, the O.C.R. does not prescribe any specific changes in Ohio's school system, leaving it up to the state to insure students are prepared for the test.

"They may shift [funding], they may change curriculum," said Mr. Mines. "But the federal government is not going to dictate to the state how it's going to do it. The bottom line is to insure equal access."

One of several Republican members of Congress who had criticized the O.C.R.'s intervention said that he had not seen the agreement, but that he hopes the O.C.R. recognized it had made a mistake in launching such a probe.

"I imagine they were pretty embarrassed when they went in and discovered exactly what the situation was," Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., said.

Retreat Or Advance?

Mr. Mines, however, said that the O.C.R. will continue to explore equity issues related to standards and testing when states request technical assistance or when complaints are filed.

Civil-rights experts who have seen the agreement said it suggested that the O.C.R. would hold states accountable for adequately equipping students to meet any new standards.

Nineteen other states have high school exit tests. But observers noted that the precedent carries even more significance for the states that will be setting standards under the Goals 2000: Educate America Act and the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which will presumably be higher than those students must now meet to receive a diploma in Ohio.

"It's a warning signal for all the states," said Phyllis McClure, a former director of educational programs at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

"They're all going to have to face this," she said. "Hopefully, they'll all take measures to deal with the schools that have a racially adverse impact on kids."

State education leaders have been wrestling with these issues for some time, according to Cynthia Brown, the director of the Resource Center for Educational Equity at the Council of Chief State School Officers.

But the Ohio case will make it even clearer to states that equal educational opportunities must be addressed when they construct student performance standards.

"They are going to need to make sure that all kids have an opportunity to get the kind of instructional program that allows them to meet those high standards," Ms. Brown, a former O.C.R. chief, said.

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