School equity fight gets 'smarter'

A California suit argues that students who have limited access to advanced classes get hurt in college admissions.

Rasheda Daniel has no illusions about how hard it will be to get into the University of California at Berkeley. That's why the high school senior has taken all the toughest courses at Inglewood High here. That's why she spends hours each night on homework, keeping up a straight-A average. That's why she got a job at a local comedy club, to spice up her rsum.

Yet she worries this might not be enough. Over in zip code 90210, students at the predominately white Beverly Hills High School can take as many as 14 advanced placement classes - high-level courses that the University of California weighs more heavily. Mostly minority Inglewood offers only three.

Because of this discrepancy, Rasheda is suing the state of California in the first legal action of its kind in the nation. For her, the suit is an attempt to allow blacks the same opportunity to compete as whites have. More broadly, though, it symbolizes a new approach in the way minorities are fighting to enforce equity in US schools. Instead of concentrating primarily on desegregation and affirmative action - programs in retreat in the courts and many cities across the country - minority groups are now focusing more on curriculum to redress historic inequities.

Thus, the lawsuit filed here last week could resonate through linoleum-tiled schools nationwide as parents and students try new ways - such as vouchers and more AP classes - to change what goes on in the classroom.

"People are finding one path blocked and trying to find others to get some measure of equity," says Gary Orfield, a professor at Harvard University's School of Education in Cambridge, Mass.

Decades ago, desegregation was seen as perhaps the key step toward improving lagging public schools. Yet today, while polls show achieving racial balance in the classroom remains an important goal among minorities, curriculum and improved learning are the primary focus.

"Integration is still highly regarded, but academic achievement is clearly priority No. 1," says Steve Farkas, director of research for Public Agenda and co-author of a 1998 study on African-American attitudes about public schools. "Who you sit next to is less important than what you learn in the classroom," he adds.

For students, access to AP classes is an integral part of this mission. Because of the challenging nature of AP classes, many state university systems, including California's, offer college credits to students who score well on the AP exam. In addition, they give students in AP classes 5 grade points for an A instead of the regular 4.

Responding to this encouragement, students have flocked to the AP. Since 1984, the number of AP exams taken has risen from 240,000 to more than 1.1 million. Therefore, say participants in the lawsuit, students who have limited access to AP classes are disadvantaged in the admissions process at top universities.

"With the disparities in AP courses in California, the playing field is at a 90 degree angle," says Mark Rosenbaum, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union here, which is bringing the suit on behalf of Rasheda and three other students in Inglewood, a suburban Los Angeles community.

Indeed, studies show how crucial a strong curriculum is. A recent report by the US Department of Education said that completing a solid academic core was more strongly correlated with getting a bachelor's degree than high school test scores, grade-point averages, or class ranks.

Yet for years, many educators shunned AP classes, fearing they would create "elite" high school classes and weaken regular classrooms by removing bright students. In the state of Washington, for example, a 42-year-old AP program has taken root slowly because, to many educators, rigorous classes went against a long-held philosophy that students performing at various levels learned best when they were taught in the same classroom. More recently however, AP classes have begun to spread across the state.

In California, Mr. Rosenbaum notes that the average student accepted by the University of California at Los Angeles last year took 16.8 AP or honors classes. Others add that the higher grade point average that AP classes give is indispensable for admission.

"With Berkeley - especially with the death of affirmative action - you just about need a 4.0 grade-point average to get in," says Wade Curry, director of AP programs for the College Board in New York. "If you don't have the GPA boost that AP courses give you, it's almost impossible to do that."

For its part, the California Department of Education says it has no comment yet on the lawsuit. A spokesman for the UC system, however, says AP courses are not the determining factor in admissions.

"The fact that students take AP courses is something we see as a positive," says Terry Lightfoot. "But we encourage our admissions officers to look at whether the applicant took the best advantage of all the educational opportunities available to them."

California is actually doing better than most states at getting AP courses into schools. Currently, 18 percent of California schools don't offer such courses. Nationally, the number is about one-quarter.

In Texas, where affirmative action is illegal at public universities - like it is in California - 40 percent of schools don't offer AP classes. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, however, has pushed through a $19 million package designed to bring AP courses to every high school in the state.

Still, any attempt to expand AP programs here or anywhere else can be difficult. For one thing, it's expensive, usually requiring new money for teachers and textbooks. "To offer APs, you have to allocate new resources or reassign resources from other programs," says Frederick Hess, an education professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Grafting AP programs on top of the courses that already exist also takes some delicate administrative work. "You'd have to have to go in and upgrade all the honors courses," says Mr. Curry. "In many schools, the honors courses are at the level of other people's regular courses."

Still another barrier to overcome may be low expectations. "One principal said, 'I don't think we'll ever have AP because we just don't have the talent,' " says Curry. Rasheda's response: just give us the opportunity. "There are a lot of people who may say that these students couldn't do it," she says. "Then again, there are some who would say, 'They could if they just put their minds to it.' "

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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