Debra P. v. Turlington

At issue in Debra P. v. Turlington (1981) was the validity of student testing. In 1978, the Florida legislature conditioned the receipt of a high school diploma on passing a state competency examination. Black students had a disproportionate failing rate on this test. Students who failed or would fail filed suit, claiming that the use of this test violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and the Equal Educational Opportunity Act (EEOA).

A federal trial court found that the content of this test was valid and its use for remediation purposes was legal. However, to avoid perpetuating past discrimination against Black students, the court enjoined using the test as a diploma sanction until the 1982–1983 school year, when the high school graduating class would be constituted entirely of students who had attended racially integrated schools from grade 1 on. The court also held that the test violated the students’ due process rights insofar as they were not given sufficient notice of this requirement. Both the plaintiffs and the defendant appealed.

On further review, the former Fifth, now Eleventh, Circuit first upheld that the state had the power to make the receipt of a high school diploma contingent on the successful passage of a test. According to the court, because responsibility for education is reserved to the states under the Tenth Amendment, the state of Florida had a rational interest in ensuring an educated citizenry. The Court explained that state officials had the authority to determine the length, manner, and content of public education as long as it was consistent with the U.S. Constitution.

The court noted that students had an understanding that if they attended school and passed the required courses, they would be entitled to diplomas. The court pointed out that this expectation constituted a property interest protected by the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The Fifth Circuit ruled that the state failed to provide students with due process protection when depriving them of their property interests. In so doing, the court affirmed that the students did not receive adequate notice and found that their right to due process was deeper than an issue of notice. The court believed that the test used was fundamentally unfair inasmuch as the students were not taught what was tested in Florida’s classrooms, an issue of curricular validity. Even so, the Fifth Circuit still agreed with the trial court that the test items themselves were not biased.

As to disparate racial impact, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s holding on the Equal Protection Clause, Title VI, and EEOA. The court agreed that state officials were enjoined from immediately using the test for diploma sanctions, because doing so would have perpetuated past racial discrimination. At the same time, the court permitted the state to use the test for remediation, because it served as an affirmative step to remove the vestiges of past discrimination.

Three years later, the Eleventh Circuit was again asked to judge the constitutionality of the state competency test. After examining ample new evidence, the Eleventh Circuit upheld the use of the test as a requirement for high school graduation, because it found that the test was instructionally valid. Additionally, the court reasoned that there was no causal link between the performance of Black students and the effects of past discrimination and that the diploma sanction remedied the present effects of past discrimination.

Ran Zhang

See also Disparate Impact; Due Process; Federalism and the Tenth Amendment; Testing, High-Stakes

Legal Citations

  • Debra P. v. Turlington, 644 F.2d 397 (5th Cir. 1981), 730 F.2d 1405 (11th Cir. 1984).