Court Ban on IQ Tests for Blacks Sparks Parents’ Suit : Education: Plaintiffs say the ruling discriminates against minority students. Others contend it protects them from testing that is racially and culturally biased.


Mary Amaya was stunned that day in May, 1987, when she opened a letter from Alder Junior High School in Fontana and read what it had to say about her younger son, Demond Crawford. What disturbed her was not the recommendation that her son be tested for learning disabilities. She had been baffled by Demond’s recent poor performance in school and welcomed the chance to get to the bottom of things.

What did upset her, she said last week, was the letter’s postscript. “Because Demond is black,” it began, those first words underlined, “we will be unable to give him an intelligence test per Peckham’s decision.”

“They made it a racial issue . . . that just didn’t sit well with me,” Amaya said.


She had never heard of U.S. District Judge Robert F. Peckham and his landmark 1979 ruling. Peckham had barred California public schools from using standardized IQ tests for determining whether academically struggling black students should be placed in special classes for the mildly mentally retarded. Siding with black parents and others who sought to stop the practice, Peckham found that the commonly used tests were racially and culturally biased and resulted in large numbers of blacks being wrongly labeled as retarded and consigned to “dead-end” programs.

But the shock and fury triggered by the letter’s postscript led Amaya--and the parents of eight other black children--to Peckham’s San Francisco courtroom as central players in a widely watched attempt to overturn the since-expanded decision. Their 1988 suit--boosted by a preliminary ruling last month clearing the way for three of the children to be tested--is likely to quicken the pace of the state Department of Education’s efforts to revamp its student evaluation policies.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig said last week he will propose that the state stop reimbursing school districts for administering the IQ tests to all students who are having trouble in school.

He said he would prefer to see the expensive and controversial tests, which arrive at an “intelligence quotient,” phased out in favor of other assessment methods. He wants to see more emphasis on helping a struggling student do better and less on trying to measure the gap between the student’s potential, which an IQ test is supposed to measure, and achievement.

The Crawford case, brought by the conservative Landmark Legal Foundation of Kansas City, Mo., on behalf of the California families, also has fanned the long debate over the usefulness of such tests and whether they discriminate against minorities.

Officials of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) of Cambridge, Mass., one of the leading opponents of standardized tests, contend that the Crawford case is an effort to bring back a practice that was found to be harmful to blacks.

“We viewed (the 1979 ruling) as a watershed case . . . because Judge Peckham did find IQ tests to be racially and culturally biased, and he stopped wholesale indiscriminate testing and tracking,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest.

“Since then there has been a whole national movement” away from using IQ tests to segregate children according to ability, Schaeffer said. “Indeed, we believe IQ tests should not be used as the sole criterion for anyone, and certainly not for anyone from a minority culture.”

Mark J. Bredemeier, general counsel for Landmark, said the purpose of the Crawford suit “is not to validate standardized tests . . . the purpose is to provide equal access. The whole point of this litigation was to provide equal access to testing for any and all black families who think it may benefit their children.”

Bredemeier said his clients’ beef is not with Peckham’s initial ruling but with its 1986 expansion, which, based on complaints that the ban was routinely violated, extended it to include any black students who are being considered for special education or other remedial classes.

“This is a situation in which good intentions have resulted in some bad policy, and that’s where we come in,” Bredemeier said.

California’s court battle over the IQ tests began in 1971 when Public Advocates, a liberal San Francisco legal group, filed a class-action suit on behalf of five black students who had been placed in classes for the mentally retarded based on standardized intelligence tests. Because only blacks were included in the suit and subsequent rulings, there developed a situation in which IQ tests were prohibited for black students having academic difficulties, but not for other minorities or whites having similar troubles.

By the time Amaya got her letter in 1987, several districts in California--including Los Angeles and San Francisco--had stopped using the tests for anyone except to evaluate promising students of any race for their academically gifted programs. (However, most districts still use the exams as a diagnostic tool for non-black students who are doing poorly.)

State education officials, who had discontinued the practice of putting youngsters into classes for the so-called “educable mentally retarded,” were beginning to seek new ways to assess students’ academic progress.

Amaya said Fontana school officials tried to explain their action by showing her copies of Peckham’s 131-page ruling. Because Amaya is a Latina and Demond of mixed racial heritage, officials told her she could have her son reclassified as Latino and he could be tested.

“What was I supposed to do? Deny he had a black father and make him ashamed of half his heritage? I really don’t think color should have anything to do with it,” Amaya said.

She told her story to a local newspaper, and when the account was picked up by the wire services, it brought a burst of national attention--including the interest of William B. Allen, an appointee by former President Ronald Reagan to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Attorneys for Landmark also heard about it and contacted Amaya and other families about pressing their case. Their suit was filed in Los Angeles but transferred to Peckham’s court and consolidated with the earlier case.

Last month’s ruling came too late for Demond Crawford, now 19. He graduated this year from Fontana’s Citrus High, a small continuation school his mother said gave him the attention he needed to succeed. After touring China this summer with a basketball team, he plans to attend Azusa Pacific College in the fall.

Only three children, two from Redlands and one from San Francisco who are still in school, remain in the case. Landmark attorneys said they will try to get last month’s ruling lifting those youngsters’ testing ban expanded to cover all blacks whose parents want them to have IQ tests. Blacks account for 8.7% of the state’s public school enrollment, state officials asaid.

Loeb Aronin, a coordinator of psychological services for the Los Angeles Unified School District and chairman of the special education committee for the California Assn. of School Psychologists, thinks IQ tests are more helpful than harmful if used properly.

“So much has changed” since the 1979 decision, said Aronin, who assisted Landmark on the Crawford case. He said special education programs and the use of IQ tests have improved since those days.

Harold E. Dent, a psychologist who specializes in testing and was an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the earlier case, adamantly disagrees.

“I am quite concerned about the Crawford case because I do believe it is a very pernicious effort to undermine” the 1979 ruling, Dent said.

“To say IQ tests are helpful is a lot of baloney. That has not been proven to be true. . . . Parents are concerned about an education for their children, and school districts do not need IQ tests to help children achieve,” Dent said.

Barry Zolotar, the education department attorney who has been trying to get the Crawford case dismissed, said none of the students in the case were denied special education services.

“What is hard to understand is these parents’ maintaining they somehow know in advance their children could not be harmed by a test ruled culturally and racially discriminatory,” Zolotar said. He added that the best solution may be Honig’s proposal to phase out the use of IQ tests altogether.

“In my judgment they are a waste of time and money,” said Honig, who is readying his department’s recommendations--in the works for about five years--for the State Board of Education.

“We can go fight in court or we can solve the problem by using a better kind of diagnosis (and shifting IQ testing monies to the classroom).”

Intelligence Tests for Blacks California’s court battle over intelligence tests for academically struggling black students has spanned 20 years. 1971: Public Advocates, a liberal San Francisco legal group, files a class-action suit on behalf of five black students, challenging the use of standardized intelligence tests for evaluating black students. The plaintiffs argue the tests are racially and culturally biased and yielded inaccurate results that permanently damaged the students’ educations. 1972: Public Advocates obtains a preliminary injunction to stop the San Francisco schools from using the tests to place black students in classes for the retarded. Students of other races are not included in the ban. 1974: U.S. District Judge Robert F. Peckham extends the temporary ban to the entire state. 1979: In a 131-page opinion, Peckham rules unconstitutional the state’s use of IQ tests that placed “grossly disproportionate” numbers of blacks into “dead-end” classes for the mentally retarded. 1984: The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upholds Peckham’s ruling by a margin of 2 to 1. 1986: At the request of the plaintiffs and the state Department of Education, Peckham expands the ban to prohibit use of the IQ tests for all black students who are candidates for special education or other remedial classes. Only those black youngsters being considered for programs for the academically gifted can be tested. 1988: Landmark Legal Foundation of Kansas City, Mo., files suit on behalf of Mary Amaya and her son, Demond Crawford, and the families of eight other black students, alleging the ban as expanded in 1986 discriminates against black families who want their children to be tested. July 15, 1991: Saying the 1986 expansion went “beyond the findings” on which he based his 1979 ruling, Peckham issues a preliminary injunction granting the family of two students the right to have their children tested. A third student can be tested if his family moves to a district that uses IQ tests, Peckham rules. NEXT STEP: Attorneys must decide whether to try to settle or proceed to trial. The education department is considering revamping its student assessment procedures, including discouraging the continued use of IQ tests for all struggling students, not just for blacks.