Assessment

Federal Judge Rules That Texas Exit Exam Is Constitutional

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 19, 2000 3 min read
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A federal judge’s ruling this month that the graduation exam in Texas is constitutional doesn’t mean other states should assume their own exit exams could survive a legal challenge, some observers cautioned last week.

“Each state does it differently, so [they] need to take a careful look at how they’re doing,” said Kathy Christie, a policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. “Any time you have a challenge to something like the exit exam in Texas, it’s a good heads-up for folks. It makes people more cognizant, more careful, more attuned to some pitfalls.”

At issue in the Texas case was whether the requirement that students pass a state test to graduate from high school violated the constitutional and civil rights of blacks and Hispanics. Students in those groups generally do more poorly on the exam than white students.

The exam, part of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills testing system, assesses students on material in reading, writing, and mathematics that they should have learned by the end of 9th grade.

“The system is not perfect, but the court cannot say that it is unconstitutional,” U.S. District Judge Edward C. Prado, based in San Antonio, concluded in his Jan. 7 decision upholding the requirement. He wrote that while “the TAAS test does adversely affect minority students in significant numbers,” the plaintiffs in the case did not prove that “the adverse impact is avoidable or more significant than the concomitant positive impact, or that other approaches would meet the state’s articulated legitimate goals.”

The judge also noted that the discrepancy in the scores of white students and minority students was “rapidly improving.”

Highlighting ‘Weaknesses’

Although he lost the case, Al Kauffman, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs and the director of the San Antonio office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said his team of experts had “highlighted the weaknesses in the Texas system.”

MALDEF argued the lawsuit against the Texas Education Agency last fall on behalf of two Hispanic advocacy groups—the GI Forum and Image de Tejas—and seven Hispanic and African-American students who had been denied diplomas after they failed the exam. (“Texas Exit Exam Under Challenge in Federal Court,” Sept. 29, 1999.)

Mr. Kauffman said last week that he had not yet decided whether to appeal the case.

Texas Commissioner of Education Jim Nelson said any weaknesses in the state’s education system were a result of historical inequalities, not the TAAS test. Judge Prado’s ruling, he said, “verifies what we have believed all along, that the test is not discriminatory. It’s been a driving force in improving education for minority students.”

The case was being watched closely by critics and proponents of so-called high-stakes testing across the country.

Ana M. “Cha” Guzman, the chairwoman of the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans and an administrator for Austin Community College in Texas, noted that “the court has found problems with the test” and argued that the state should take those findings seriously.

The commission that she heads has asked states not to use standardized tests for high-stakes decisions, such as whether a student will be promoted to the next grade or graduate, until they offer equal educational opportunities for students.

Matthew Gandal, the director of standards and assessment for Achieve Inc., a nonprofit group in Cambridge, Mass., founded by governors and business leaders to promote higher student achievement, said he thought the judge had taken “a long-term view” of the purpose of exit exams and how they fit into the academic- standards movement. The judge correctly viewed testing and standards as a way to help minority students, Mr. Gandal said.

Jay P. Heubert, an associate professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, said some aspects of how Texas administers its exit exam made it easier for it to defend the test in court than would be true in some other states. Among those aspects: The state defines “effective schools” in part by whether they are closing the gap in achievement on the TAAS between white and minority students, and the test covers only basic skills rather than rigorous academic skills.

Mr. Heubert said he feared that states would take the ruling as a go-ahead to make passing an exit test the sole requirement for graduation, “rather than weighing grades and test scores together.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2000 edition of Education Week as Federal Judge Rules That Texas Exit Exam Is Constitutional

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