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Mother Dismayed as Race, IQ Test Collide

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was hard enough when Wendy Strong realized her 7-year-old daughter, Brianna Combash, might have a learning disability and would need testing to determine if special education classes were required.

Little did she know that a 15-year-old federal court ruling would make her ordeal even more complicated, because Brianna’s African American heritage makes her ineligible for an IQ test that might help identify her learning problem.

The landmark 1979 federal court ruling prohibits California public schools from using standardized intelligence tests on African American children to determine mental retardation.

“The law is ridiculous,” Strong said. “They need to have appropriate tests for everybody. It shouldn’t have anything to do with race.”

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In his decision, U.S. District Judge Robert F. Peckham determined that commonly used IQ tests were racially and culturally biased, and resulted in a disproportionate number of black students being placed in “dead-end” classes for the mentally retarded.

The ruling was upheld by an appeals court in 1984 and expanded in 1986 to prohibit IQ tests for all black students who are candidates for special education or other remedial classes, even if their parents request such tests. Students of other races are not included in the ban.

“We fought very hard for that ruling,” James Colquitt, president of the Orange County Chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said of Peckham’s initial ruling. An IQ test “is not a valid tool of judgment. It has never worked for anybody.”

Black students under consideration for programs for the academically gifted are allowed to take IQ tests.

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Strong said she can understand how the law may protect some children, but doesn’t believe it should apply to her daughter.

Brianna, a second-grader at Linda Vista Elementary School in Mission Viejo, lives in Laguna Hills. Her father is of African American and Native American heritage. Strong is white. Brianna’s father could not be reached for comment Friday.

Strong believes the situation leaves her only two unacceptable options: have Brianna reclassified as white in school records, which would make her instantly eligible for an IQ test, or take an alternative assessment that does not involve intelligence quotients.

Strong said she believes the alternative test is inferior and inconclusive, and finds the prospect of changing Brianna’s ethnicity “morally wrong.”

“I’ve had to really work with Brianna on loving herself as being a brown person,” Strong said. “We shouldn’t have to change it at all. You should be able to state who you are, and have the same rights as everyone else.”

A single mother with two young children, Strong said she can’t afford an estimated $700 for a private IQ test. But meanwhile, Brianna is struggling in class, unhappy and losing self-esteem, according to her mother. “I’m not sure what we’ll do,” Strong said. “I’m not going to make any snap decisions. We’ll just ride with this for the moment and see what happens.”

Strong is not the first to protest the ruling, which is being challenged in a federal appeal stemming from a 1988 San Bernardino County case.

Officials in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District said they have no choice but to follow the law as it currently stands.

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“It’s not our job to judge if the law is fair or not,” said Sharon Fowler, director of pupil services. “We have to follow what the state Department of Education and the legal branch of the government tells us to do.”

In a 1992 legal advisory on the issue, the California Department of Education recommended that school districts stop utilizing the controversial IQ tests, even in testing students for academically gifted programs. The state education department has said it wants to phase out use of IQ tests in favor of other assessment methods that emphasize helping struggling students do better in school.

Fowler said the alternative assessments are more difficult to use and take more time, but yield the same types of information as IQ tests, such as abilities involving concentration, memory, reasoning and vocabulary. Alternative methods have been used before locally with success, Fowler said.

There is no state or federal law requiring the use of IQ tests, although they are commonly used throughout the state.

“This should be characterized as an educational issue instead of a race / intelligence quotient issue,” said Barry A. Zolotar, deputy general counsel for the state Department of Education. “Districts should look for alternative assessment procedures which are available” and have proven effective in determining special education needs, he said.

Some districts--including Los Angeles and San Francisco--have stopped using IQ tests to determine placement in special education classes for all students, regardless of race.


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