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Jewish World Review Jan. 15, 2000 /7 Shevat, 5760

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Command of basic educational skills: A novel idea? -- EDUCATION REFORM got a big boost last week from a surprising source: the federal courts. That hasn't always been the case. In past years, courts have often played a pernicious role in education, more concerned with promoting social equality than learning. But last week, a federal judge actually did something that could improve the quality of education not just in Texas, where the decision was handed down, but throughout the nation.

In a case brought by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), U.S. District Court Judge Edward Prado upheld the right of the Texas Education Agency to require graduating students to pass a competency test in order to receive a high-school diploma. Judge Prado rejected MALDEF's claim that the test, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills or TAAS, was discriminatory simply because blacks and Hispanics failed the test at higher rates than whites.

MALDEF hoped that Judge Prado would strike down the test, but instead, he showed admirable deference to the political process. "This Court has no authority to tell the state of Texas what a well-educated high-school graduate should demonstrably know at the end of 12 years of education," Judge Prado wrote. "Ultimately, resolution of this case turns not on the validity of the parties' views on education but on the state's right to pursue educational policies that it legitimately believes are in the best interest of Texas students."

Texas is one of 19 states that requires students to pass a test in order to graduate. States have adopted such tests to ensure that students have some command of basic skills before they graduate, especially in an era of social promotion and inflated grades. The TAAS, administered to all 10th-graders in Texas, measures proficiency in reading, writing and math, with many of the questions based on eighth-grade materials.

Students who fail the test on the first try have an opportunity to take the exam up to seven additional times. In 1999, 86 percent of white sophomores, 64 percent of Hispanics, and 60 percent of blacks passed the test on the first round. But critics allege that about 20 percent of minority students, compared with 10 percent of whites, never pass the test, and therefore, don't receive their high-school diplomas, despite having attended classes and received passing grades.

Is this fair, especially if black and Hispanic students are more likely to attend poorly funded schools that do a lousy job of teaching the basics?

Judge Prado was sympathetic to MALDEF's claim that black and Hispanic students have not always had equal educational opportunity because many of them attend under-funded school districts. But he viewed the state education agency's implementation of a standardized achievement test as a way to measure the disparities between poor and affluent districts, minority and non-minority schools, and gave credit to the state for attempting to correct these disparities. "The results of the TAAS are used, in many cases quite effectively, to motivate not only students but schools and teachers to raise and meet educational standards," Judge Prado wrote.

Texas was one of the first states to adopt a high-school graduation exam requirement in the mid-1980s. Since that time, Texas has made good progress in closing the racial achievement gap, with black and Hispanic scores rising consistently in the last few years Surely, much of the reason has been the state's emphasis on holding students -- and teachers and administrators -- accountable. Thankfully, Judge Prado has left up to the people of Texas to determine how best to determine that accountability.

Judge Prado's decision has far-reaching implications. Had MALDEF prevailed in striking down the Texas test, other challenges to state graduation tests would have been quick to follow. But Judge Prado may not have the last word, since MALDEF has warned it may appeal the decision. If so, education-reformers can only hope that other judges who take up this issue will pay close attention to Judge Prado's words:

"Education is the particular responsibility of state governments," he wrote. "Moreover, courts do not have the expertise, or the mandate of the electorate, that would justify unwarranted intrusions in curricular decisions."

Judge Prado is a wise man.

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