Texas Academic Standards Upheld

Published March 1, 2000

Who should issue driver’s licenses to teenagers? Should it be the driving instructors who are responsible for teaching teens to drive? Or should it be an impartial examiner who tests each teen to see if he or she possesses the basic skills and knowledge required to drive?

Most people agree that using an examiner is the better way of making sure that driver’s licenses aren’t issued to teens who can’t read traffic signs and don’t know the Rules of the Road.

A similarly common-sense decision was handed down on January 7 by U.S. District Court Judge Edward C. Prado in an important and closely watched Texas case. The case asked who should be responsible for issuing high school diplomas: A student’s teachers, who may give the student passing grades in all classes? Or the Texas Education Agency (TEA), which may flunk the same student for not possessing a minimum set of academic skills?

Prado gave the nod to the state, not the teachers, and upheld the right of the TEA to make the award of a high school diploma conditional on passing a competency test.

“In spite of projected disparities in passing rates [of different ethnic groups], the TEA determined that objective measures of mastery should be imposed in order to eliminate what it perceived to be inconsistent and possibly subjective teacher evaluations of students,” wrote Prado, noting the state agency presented evidence of subjective teacher evaluations. The problem with subjective teacher evaluations, Prado noted, is that they “can work to disadvantage minority students by allowing inflated grades to mask gaps in learning.”

“Texans want a high school diploma to mean something,” explained Texas Education Commissioner Jim Nelson.

Education officials in several states had anxiously awaited the outcome of the case. Many already have or are developing similar high-stakes graduation tests. Nineteen states have tests required for graduation, and another eight have plans to put them in place. The court ruling preserves Texas’ school accountability system, where the state holds educators accountable for student learning, attendance, and dropout rates.

Texas Governor George W. Bush said he was “really pleased” with the decision and that it confirmed the state’s strong education accountability system, which he frequently has cited in his Presidential bid.

Public school students in the Lone Star State start taking the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test in the third grade. In the tenth grade, all Texas public school students are given what is called the “exit-level” TAAS exam–the exam they must pass to graduate. The test measures their proficiency in reading, writing, and mathematics.

Students who achieve a 70 percent score on the exit-level test–which is based largely on eighth-grade material–are entitled to receive a high school graduation diploma when they leave the twelfth grade. Students who fail have seven additional opportunities to take the test before their scheduled graduation date.

The use of the TAAS test to deny high school diplomas was challenged by the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), which argued the test was discriminatory simply because the failure rate for African-Americans and Hispanics was higher than for whites. MALDEF claimed the test had an impermissible adverse impact on minority students in Texas and also violated their right to due process.

The case was brought on behalf of nine students who did not pass the TAAS exit-level examination prior to their scheduled graduation dates and who requested that their respective school districts issue their diplomas. The court denied their request.

MALDEF presented an argument frequently made by apologists for the poor performance of urban public schools–that the state can’t hold students accountable for acquiring any knowledge unless it guarantees that all students are given an equal opportunity to learn. According to MALDEF, it’s unfair to penalize minority students by denying them a high school diploma when their school district hasn’t provided them with the same opportunity to learn that white students have. Teacher assessments, not TAAS test results, should be the main criteria for awarding diplomas, argued MALDEF.

Prado rejected this argument. Although he recognized that minorities were under-represented in advanced placement courses and in gifted-and-talented programs–and that minority students were disproportionately taught by non-certified teachers–he found that “the Plaintiffs presented insufficient evidence to support a finding that minority students do not have a reasonable opportunity to learn the material covered in the TAAS examination, whether because of unequal education in the past or the current residual effects of an unequal system.”

Prado said the TAAS test accomplishes exactly what it sets out to accomplish, which is “to provide an objective assessment of whether students have mastered a discrete set of skills and knowledge.” Since the state has linked the test to the state curriculum, “the Court finds that all Texas students have an equal opportunity to learn the items presented on the TAAS test, which is the issue before the Court.”

While acknowledging “the TAAS test does adversely affect minority students in significant numbers,” Prado ruled there was an “educational necessity” for the test; the plaintiffs, he determined, had failed to identify equally effective alternatives. He also concluded there had been no violation of due process rights, since the TEA provided adequate notice of the consequences of the exam and ensured that the exam is strongly correlated to material actually taught in the classroom.

“The system is not perfect, but the Court cannot say that it is unconstitutional,” he wrote.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.