Published Online: May 24, 2000
Published in Print: May 24, 2000, as Testing



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Testing Civil Rights: Forty-six years after the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, the organization that fought for the desegregation of the nation's schools has a new priority: easing the impact of high-stakes tests on minority students.

But, unlike in the momentous 1954 case, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund won't be fighting in the federal courts. Instead, it will take the battle over such tests to Congress and state legislatures.

"It's one of the most important educational issues of our time," Elaine R. Jones, the president and counsel of the legal arm of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, told civil rights activists at a panel discussion the group held in Washington May 17—the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision striking down "separate but equal" schools.

"We will have a very, very difficult time with this issue in the courts," Ms. Jones added.

Other civil rights activists agreed, saying that the federal courts so far haven't ruled favorably for evidence that the tests that determine grade-advancement and graduation decisions are unfair to African-American and Hispanic students.

For example, a federal judge in Texas ruled in January that the state has the right to create a high school exit exam even though the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund demonstrated that 100,000 Hispanic students had failed to earn high school diplomas since the test began.

"I see [the courts] as the absolute last, unpredictable avenue to take," said Antonia Hernandez, the president of MALDEF, the Los Angeles-based civil rights organization that filed the suit.

The best strategy, Ms. Hernandez said, is to wage state-by-state lobbying efforts to persuade legislatures to stop existing high-stakes tests and head off new ones. But advocates aren't optimistic about their chances in the legislative process either.

"I'm still searching for the best way politically to connect with people on this," said U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., who has sponsored a bill to curtail the use of test scores for high-stakes decisions.

"It looks like you're for graduating students who can't add 10 plus 10," he said.

Mr. Wellstone and civil rights activists want schools to take other factors—such as grades and teacher evaluations—into account when deciding whether a student should advance to the next grade or earn a diploma.

—David J. Hoff

Vol. 19, Issue 37, Page 12

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