The Magazine

THOSE WHO CAN'T, SUE

Mar 4, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 24 • By DEBRA J. SAUNDERS
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TODAY'S LESSON, BROUGHT TO YOU by the California Teachers Association: When you flunk a test, sue.


Thirteen years ago, California implemented the California Basic Education Skills Test, or CBEST, with the modest goal of insuring that new teachers have attained at least a 10th-grade level in reading, writing, and math. This year hearings are being held in a three-year effort to gut the test. In 1992, the Oakland Alliance of Black Educators, the Association of Mexican-American Educators, and the California Association for Asian-Pacific Bilingual Education filed a class action suit against the test. In 1993, the California Teachers Association (CTA) -- arguably the state's largest lobbying entity, affiliated with the National Education Association -- filed an amicus brief in support of the suit. The educrats contend that the test is -- what else? -- racist.


As proof, the suit offers pass ratios by ethnic grouping. Only 35 percent of African Americans, 51 percent of Latinos, and 59 percent of Asians -- but 80 percent of white test-takers -- passed the test the first time. Not mentioned in the suit is the fact that, when those who take the test two or more times are included, 63 percent of blacks, 86 percent of Latinos, 84 percent of Asians, and 96 percent of whites pass. Indeed, six of the original 11 individual plaintiffs named in the suit have passed CBEST since 1992.


This is not a difficult test. The writing section requires applicants to write two brief essays. The reading section features multiple-choice questions to assess comprehension of a few short essays. A sample math question: Sari ran for club president and received 70 percent of the vote. His opponent garnered 21 votes. How many people voted? The answer is multiple choice. Another question asks, "Of the following fractions, which is closest in value to 0.35 -- 3/5, 1/2, 1/5, 1/4 or 1/37"


Patricia Wheeler, who helped write the test, testified in court that she gave 80 sample math questions to her 8-year-old son. He got only two wrong. (They found typos in two others.) Since then, the state has responded to pressure from teacher groups by making the math section even easier, eliminating questions involving elementary geometry and algebra.


Nonetheless, the suit argues that the information in the test -- especially the math portion -- may be irrelevant to a classroom teacher, a school counselor (who must figure grade point averages), or an administrator (whose job involves budgeting). The suit argues that even an award-winning teacher of a subject covered on the test can fail it -- a sign of the test's weakness, the suit claims, not of any shortcoming in the system.


The suit's star plaintiff is Sara Boyd, an African-American former teacher and guidance counselor now retired from her job as vice principal of Menlo- Atherton High School. The suit cites Boyd's many awards and accolades as proof that she is a solid educator as well as "an extra-sensitive conduit and role model for the school's large minority student population."


Even attorney Lawrence Ashe, who is defending the test, was surprised by an exchange in a videotaped deposition with Boyd. She had mentioned that 6 out of 80 teachers at her school were black -- 1 or 2 percent by her estimation. Then she realized that 8 teachers were black.


"So, in fact, 10 percent of the faculty is African American?" Ashe responded.


"No," Boyd countered.


"What percent of 80 is 8?" Ashe asked Boyd.


For 40 seconds -- I timed it -- Boyd was silent. Then: "Can you rephrase that? I'm drawing a blank here."


The question was rephrased and Boyd answered "That's about 1 per cent."


Plaintiffs' attorney John Affeldt has maintained that Boyd is competent and that for years she ably computed grade point averages as a guidance counselor. He dismissed Boyd's wrong answer as deposition nervousness. But she flunked CBEST four times -- earning the equivalent of 0 in math twice. "A lot of math anxiety," Affeldt explained.


Boyd also must suffer from reading anxiety, because she flunked the reading section all four times as well. Some other plaintiffs took and failed the test six or more times.