Summary of Debra P. v. Turlington - May 4, 1983 Ruling


"Students in Florida are the real winners through this court decision," Florida Commissioner of Education Ralph Turlington stated when advised of the favorable ruling from U. S. District Court Judge George C. Carr in the Debra P. v. Turlington case. Judge Carr ruled that "the State of Florida may deny diplomas to members of the class of 1983 who have not passed the State Student Assessment Test, Part II (SSAT-II)." This ruling is the latest development in a long legal battle that began in 1978 when ten Hillsborough County black students who failed Florida's competency test challenged its use as a requirement for a diploma. In 1979, Judge Carr upheld the test but delayed implementation of the graduation requirement until the 1982-83 school year. Plaintiffs and defendants appealed the case which resulted in a remand of the case back to the U. S. District Court to determine if the test measured what was actually taught in the classrooms. Judge Carr also was asked by the Appeals Court to explore whether vestiges of prior segregation of the schools were adversely affecting black student achievement.

To demonstrate that the test had instructional validity, the state conducted a study of all 67 school districts that included (1) each district's self-report of its instructional plans and activities related to the SSAT-II skills, (2) a teacher survey asking whether teachers had provided instruction on the skills, and (3) on-site visits to each district by teams of educators to verify the district's self-report of instructional activities. A student survey was included in the on-site visit. On review of the study evidence, the court determined the SSAT-II is instructionally valid, is constitutional, and students are ". . . afforded an adequate opportunity to learn the skills tested on the SSAT-II." On the vestiges issue, after hearing several witnesses for both sides, the court saw no causal link between failure rate for black students and the present effects of past school segregation. In addition, the ruling indicated that if there was a causal link, the State had carried the ". . . burden of showing that the SSAT-II is necessary to remedy those effects."

Instead of a diploma, a student who does not pass the test will receive a Certificate of Completion which can be exchanged for a diploma if the student passes the test in later attempts. Florida students are given five opportunities to pass the test prior to graduation and are offered remediation courses during this period if they fail. If eligible for a Certificate of Completion, students have the option of accepting the certificate and seeking further remediation through the Adult Education Program before retaking the test. A second alternative is not to accept the certificate and to stay in regular school a "13th" year for remediation and retaking of the test.