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OCR Probes Bias Complaint Against Texas Exit Test

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Federal civil-rights officials are weighing a complaint that the test all Texas students must pass to get a high school diploma unfairly discriminates against minority youths.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights said last week that the complaint, filed in December by the Texas branch of the NAACP, remains open, and officials in the agency's Dallas regional office hope to resolve the dispute without launching a full-fledged investigation.

On the firing line is the nation's largest high-stakes examination system for high school students--a reading, writing, and mathematics test that annually determines how many of Texas' nearly 200,000 high school seniors will get a diploma.

Like a similar investigation the OCR undertook in Ohio in 1994, the case also raises the broader question of whether high-stakes testing--tests that determine such crucial steps as a student's promotion or graduation--can survive if racial disparities in results will be treated as a civil-rights violation.

Texas officials point to the high success rate all racial groups have logged on their exit test, which has been given for the past 10 years to students in the Lone Star State.

According to the Texas Education Agency, last year more than 90 percent of black high school seniors passed all three parts of the standardized Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, which is designed to ensure mastery of 10th-grade skills. Among Hispanics, 91 percent passed, as did 98 percent of white seniors.

Half Full, Half Empty?

But officials of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People say that numbers meant to paint a picture of success instead show how the test unfairly favors white teenagers. Looking at the numbers another way, they argue, the students who fail are seven times more likely to be black than white.

"Their figures show exactly what we are saying," said Gary Bledsoe, an Austin lawyer and the president of the Texas naacp. "And that's how many people have passed it after eight tries. It doesn't show how many kids drop out because they can't pass the test."

The group's complaint argues that what should be a diagnostic test is instead a punitive tool with an arbitrary cutoff point. Mr. Bledsoe said that many high school students who have failed the test repeatedly have gone on to get a high school equivalency certificate or find success in college or at work.

State officials, meanwhile, have repeatedly defended the test, arguing that the exit exam is an insurance marker that tells parents, employers, and students themselves that a diploma stands for something.

Opportunity To Learn

The complaint puts the federal civil-rights office in a bind. Nearly two years ago, the office launched a full-scale investigation of Ohio's exit test that stretched on for months and became a target for critics, who said that federal officials were intruding into state decisionmaking.

The Ohio investigation focused on whether high school students in every district had received the instruction necessary to pass the exit test--the "opportunity to learn" that has been a contentious issue, particularly in regard to the federal role, in the debate over setting high academic standards.

That probe marked the first time that the OCR had formally treated achievement disparities between school districts as a federal civil-rights issue. And after months of haggling with officials in Ohio and enduring harsh criticism, particularly from Republicans on Capitol Hill, the OCR reached an agreement that allowed the test to stand. The state, in turn, agreed to make sure that students were adequately prepared to pass the test. (See Education Week, Oct. 12, 1994.)

Mr. Bledsoe said similar issues are at the heart of the Texas complaint.

"We know that in some lower-level courses, students are not being taught the skills that are on the test," he said.

"Beyond that, we have heard from a large majority of parents who are upset that the test is narrowing the curriculum that is being taught," Mr. Bledsoe said. "A lot of educators oppose it because they have to be so focused on the test, it takes time away from what they think they should be teaching."

Federal officials said they expect to decide within the next week or so how they will handle the complaint.

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