Law & Courts

Appellate Court Rejects Challenge To Louisiana High-Stakes Testing

By Erik W. Robelen — September 26, 2001 3 min read
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A federal appeals court last week rejected a challenge to Louisiana’s high-stakes testing system, agreeing with a lower court that the plaintiffs lacked the constitutional basis they claimed for their case.

Neither court ruled on the virtues of Louisiana’s promotion policy, which requires 4th and 8th graders to pass state assessments before moving to the next grade. Rather, the courts said that unlike a diploma, which amounts to constitutionally protected property because it materially affects a person’s earning power, promotion to a higher grade does not rise to that level.

The plaintiffs, Parents Against Testing Before Teaching, based in New Orleans, had argued that because of alleged flaws in Louisiana public education, denying students promotion because of their failure on a state test amounted to a violation of the due-process guarantees under applicable federal and state law. They cited a 1981 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit—the same court that ruled in the current case—that tests tied to graduation do in fact trigger due-process protections.

The three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit, in a unanimous one-page opinion dated Sept. 17, rejected the comparison.

Willie M. Zanders, who represented the plaintiffs, vowed that the legal challenge was not over.

“The case is too important to give up on at this point,” he said. “I knew that it would be tough. These are actions at the highest level.” Mr. Zanders added, “State politicians have stripped teachers of the right to promote students.”

Further Appeals

Mr. Zanders said he plans to appeal the ruling to the full 5th Circuit court and ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.

But state schools Superintendent Cecil J. Picard hailed the ruling.

“I think it was an important decision not only for [New] Orleans and the state of Louisiana,” he said. “I think this is of national significance.”

The New Orleans group, while saying it does not oppose standardized testing, has criticized the Louisiana system as unfair and punitive to students. The group contends that students have not been adequately prepared to pass the exams.

It went to federal court to block the high-stakes testing, requesting a three- to five-year moratorium or suspension of the tests for grade-promotion purposes “until all responsible parties are held fully accountable for their part in maintaining quality public schools.”

But the appellate panel affirmed the lower court’s rejection of that request. In particular, the appeals court noted that the 5th Circuit’s 1981 decision in Deborah P. v. Turlington, cited by the plaintiffs, “pertains to the narrow right of graduating seniors to obtain a diploma, and not to any expectation of promotion in the public schools from year to year.”

Mr. Picard strongly disputed the plaintiffs’ charge that Louisiana’s testing system is punitive.

“What punishes kids is to socially promote them,” he said. “We’re identifying kids ... and providing the resources to help them.”

Part of a Trend

The decision also drew praise from an analyst at Achieve Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit group founded by governors and business leaders to encourage school improvement.

“This sounds like another victory for those of us who believe that accountability has a place in the public schools,” said Jennifer L. Vranek, the director of benchmarking and state services for Achieve.

The decision, she said, is part of “a growing body of case law in favor of high-stakes assessments.”

She pointed to recent decisions in Texas and Indiana where courts rejected legal challenges to high school exit exams that students must pass in order to graduate.

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