Beware of Misusing Test Scores, ED Draft Advises

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If members of minority groups typically score lower on a standardized test than their peers, schools and colleges shouldn't use it in granting admission, determining student placement, or awarding scholarships except under very limited circumstances, according to a draft resource guide from the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights.

The test must be "educationally necessary," meaning that it is reliable for the purpose for which it is being used, and it must be the "least discriminatory practical alternative" available to the school, the guide states.

Though the guide is still in draft form and is not intended as a legal document, it is already being alternately cheered and criticized by officials of major education groups. Some say schools desperately need such a guide to help them use high-stakes standardized tests fairly and correctly. Others, particularly those in the higher education community who rely heavily on the SAT and the ACT, argue that the guide will have a chilling effect on the use of such college-entrance exams.

The guide, titled "Nondiscrimination in High-Stakes Testing: A Resource Guide," aims to clarify the practices allowed and prohibited by Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. It focuses on high-stakes tests that may, in some cases, contribute to a "disproportionate denial of an educational benefit or opportunity to members of a particular race, national origin, or sex."

The Education Department provided Education Week with a copy of the guide after The Chronicle of Higher Education published a story on it last week.

Arthud L. Coleman

"The resource guide is intended to capture settled legal principles and anti-discrimination principles ... so that educators and policymakers can better understand the issues surrounding test use," Arthur L. Coleman, the deputy assistant secretary for the Education Department's office for civil rights, said in an interview. "There is no one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter formula here."

Often, standardized tests are used for the wrong purpose, Mr. Coleman said.

"The classic example is when states use IQ tests as the sole criteria in which to place students in gifted-and-talented courses," he said. "IQ tests were never validated for that purpose. That is a clear case of test misuse."

Some states also use IQ tests to place students in special education classes; consequently, minority students "were disproportionately denied opportunities to achieve to higher standards," Mr. Coleman said.

In other instances, colleges and universities have used the results of the SAT and the ACT to choose scholarship recipients, Mr. Coleman said. Those exams are intended only to predict how students will compete academically during the first year of college, he noted.

Divided Reaction

Some education experts said last week that they would welcome the guide as a much-needed resource.

"We don't have much settled law in this area," said Julie Underwood, the general counsel for the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association. "It's not like we all know the rules."

"Testing has had an incredible impact on K-12 with states mandating tests," said Ms. Underwood, who looked over the document in draft form and gave her opinion on the guide to the ocr earlier this month."It has changed the way we do business [in education]."

But others said the guide could be misinterpreted as law and scare schools and colleges away from using standardized tests, which testmakers contend are a fair and efficient way to assess students.

The guide "has the potential to eliminate or drastically reduce the use of tests in education," said Wayne Camara, the executive director of research for the New York City-based College Board, which sponsors the sat.

Because the guide suggests no school should use a standardized test as the sole measure of a student's ability, many schools would likely stop using high school exit exams, which have become widespread in recent years, he said. In place of those tests, he said, states could be forced to rely more heavily on a student's grade point average--which he described as a subjective measure that could lead to discrimination.

"It appears that the OCR is trying to establish guidelines ... that have precedence over legal challenges to educational tests without going through regulatory agencies," Mr. Camara said.

Suggesting that tests be used for their specified purposes is fine, said Anthony P. Carnevale, the vice president for public leadership at the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service, the designer of the SAT and other standardized tests. But he added that "it is not that the test is unfair, it is that society is unfair."

Many minority students don't do as well as white students on standardized exams because they come from poorer families who live in poorer neighborhoods and attend less challenging schools, Mr. Carnevale said.

The OCR guide remains a working document and will be completed in the fall, Mr. Coleman said. It must then be approved by the National Academy of Sciences' board of testing, an independent body.

Vol. 18, Issue 37, Page 5

Published in Print: May 26, 1999, as Beware of Misusing Test Scores, ED Draft Advises
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