BROOKLYN, N.Y. — The Supreme Court is considering two school desegregation cases that will probably result in limits on the use of race as a criterion for admission to public elementary and high schools.
Not surprisingly, the Bush administration is supporting the plaintiffs' arguments that the use of such racial criteria is unconstitutional. It was no doubt delighted to hear Justice Anthony Kennedy say during oral arguments that "characterizing each student by reason of the color of his or her skin should only be, if ever allowed, allowed as a last resort."
But Bush officials are being inconsistent. They don't apply that standard to their own public education policies. It's time they embraced the premise of their own student testing rules – race matters – and support efforts to promote access and diversity in schools.
The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, is remarkable because it deals with racial issues in a manner at odds with nearly every other policy advocated by the Bush administration – including its current argument to the Supreme Court that school desegregation plans must be "race neutral." NCLB requires that schools show adequate progress in each of 10 "subgroups" of students. These subgroups include nonracial categories such as disabled, poor, and limited English proficient students, as well as racial and ethnic categories such as blacks, Hispanics, Asians, native Americans, and whites.
We applaud the intent behind such policies to support students who, as a group, tend to have subpar academic performance. But the policy rests on flawed assumptions about the use of such tests to determine which students are being taught well. It also creates perverse incentives potentially harmful to the groups the policy intends to help and raises thorny philosophical issues about race.
Given the diversity of the way schools are organized, current research casts strong doubts on the ability of such tests to consistently evaluate a school's progress. Worse, testing tools get less reliable when disaggregated by the subgroups of concern in NCLB. In particular, small schools and schools with relatively small groups of different kinds of students pose nearly intractable statistical problems.
For instance, Midwood High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., got flagged because the scores of 33 disabled students (out of more than 3,700 total) did not improve. But statistically it is almost impossible to determine that the school is not teaching these students well. Another flaw in NCLB, pointed out by President Bush's brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, is that it does not track individual students over time. The difference in how schools are evaluated, using exactly the same tests, can be quite dramatic. For example, R.J. Longstreet Elementary School in Daytona Beach, Fla., failed under NCLB for four years, but got A's for five years in a row in Jeb Bush's program, which does track individual students over time. So to a school that George W. Bush gives an "F," Jeb Bush gives an "A"!
While we support policies aimed at addressing educational inequities, we are concerned by the perverse incentives that stem from NCLB's racialization of academic standards. At best, school staff must now view all their students through an explicitly racial lens. At worst, shrewd principals, understanding that their organizations' survival is so dependent on the average test scores of certain students, have an incentive to exclude these underperforming subgroups. Moreover, a Supreme Court decision to end the use of race in admissions can aid in this exclusion. Bush administration officials assert that NCLB does not allow schools to "hide behind averages," meaning that overall school improvement cannot come at the expense of smaller subgroups of concern.
But how does that stance jibe with the other prominent policies the Bush administration has pursued regarding race? In 2003, the administration sided with the plaintiffs against the University of Michigan in the Supreme Court precisely because their admissions system paid particular attention to race. And the administration recently used an obscure statement on energy policy to make clear that race should not be a factor in government programs.
Yet NCLB is a tacit admission that race matters. How can the Bush administration force primary and secondary schools to pay specific attention to test scores of students of particular racial groups while arguing that similar racial attention should be illegal for admission to the same public schools being tested? Even conservative opponents of affirmative action have called this approach "schizophrenic" and unprincipled.
To make it principled, the administration must reconsider its positions on affirmative action and school integration. And it must stop urging the Supreme Court to ban a tool some local school districts deem effective and desirable for providing access and expanding student diversity.
Through NCLB, the Bush administration has promoted "characterizing each student by reason of the color of his or her skin" for the purposes of assessing school performance. This is an admission that race matters in the public school arena. We agree. And race matters not only when it's convenient for political aims.
• Alec Ian Gershberg teaches education policy and Darrick Hamilton teaches economics, statistics, and race and public policy at The New School's Milano Graduate School for Management and Urban Policy in New York.