Standardized tests under fire
Guidelines could lead to lawsuits
June 15, 1999
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The federal government plans to propose guidelines that would ban widely used standardized tests -- from college entrance exams to elementary school assessments -- if they are found to be racially discriminatory and, thus, against the law.
Schools could be forced to establish new criteria for admitting or promoting students or face the possibility of lawsuits.
A draft document from the U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights now being circulated among educators would ban "the use of any education test which has a significant disparate impact on members of any particular race, national origin, or sex ... unless it is educationally necessary and there is no practicable alternative form of assessment."
College and university officials who consider standardized tests -- such as the SAT and ACT exams -- essential are alarmed for good reason, says Terry Pell of the Center for Individual Rights.
"(The Education Department has) given a road map to every single minority group in the country to bring a lawsuit against any school that uses standardized tests," he told CNN. "The predictable result is that schools will abandon the use of standardized tests."
The Education Department disputes that.
"It is not intended to be an indictment of all tests. Nor is it intended to say that all tests are perfect or good," Arthur Coleman, the department's deputy assistant secretary for civil rights, told CNN. "The question is: 'How is a particular test, in a particular context, for a particular purpose, being used?'"
The proposals, Coleman says, are just a restatement of existing federal law.
"We're not saying anything here that doesn't already exist on the books," he told The Wall Street Journal.
Even so, the department is fielding a growing number of complaints that standardized tests are being used -- inappropriately and exclusively -- to make high stakes educational decisions such as who gets promoted and who gets placed in programs for gifted students.
Because minorities and females often score lower on such tests, the effect is to exclude them.
"Every professional guideline says, 'Don't use these test scores as a sole criteria to make decisions," says Robert Shaffer of FairTest, an advocacy organization that combats bias in standardized testing. "But that is guidance that is widely abused and ignored."
Not everywhere, though.
At Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, applicants can choose whether or not to submit scholastic assessment test scores.
"The things that the SAT doesn't really measure are things like motivation, tenacity, work ethic," says Christopher Hooker-Haring, the school's dean of admissions.
That view is shared by Muhlenberg student Tressa McAllister.
"I don't agree with the SATs because it (only measures) how you take a test on one specific day," she told CNN.
In the three years since the SAT-optional policy went into effect at Muhlenberg, minority enrollment has gone up and academic performance has held steady.
In Montgomery County, Maryland, educators want to continue using standardized tests to evaluate both students and schools.
But Chrisandra Richardson, principal of the county's Georgian Forest Elementary School, acknowledges that disparities on scores are at least partly due to cultural biases in the exams.
"Some of the questions ... have to do with very Americanized kinds of things," she told CNN, "like 'The Wizard of Oz,' for example, where children from other cultures just aren't familiar with the stories."
Educators in Montgomery County doubt those biases can be eliminated. Their response has been an intensive reading program for the very youngest students at 54 disadvantaged elementary schools.
The county believes closing the gaps in test performance is the best way to quell the argument over the place and purpose of standardized testing.
Correspondent Jeanne Meserve contributed to this report.
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