Most students had a hard time with the latest round of the new high-stakes test in Massachusetts. But when scores start to count toward graduation in 2003, it's minority students who are most likely not to make the cut.
That outcome is unfair to black and Hispanic students, say some advocacy groups, who predict that as many as 80 percent of these students could fail to graduate from high school. They add that around the US, high numbers of expulsions for discipline offenses under new "zero tolerance" standards are also forcing minorities out of classrooms.
It all points to discrimination, critics say. And they're gearing up for protests, investigations, and lawsuits.
Testing proponents insist that poor results in Massachusetts and elsewhere only confirm what educators have always known: that some children are better served by their schools than others. Without the prospect of stark consequences for kids, adults are unlikely to fix what's not working, they add.
It's one of the sharpest disputes in American education today. And it could determine the future of the most sustained effort to reform public education in this century.
"There will be a lot of litigation and political battles over these tests - and not just because they hurt minorities. They're also hurting middle-class kids," says Gary Orfield, who directs the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. "To adopt a high-stakes policy like this in a society with as unequal schooling opportunities as we have, without knowing the results in any serious way is reckless."
In a report released this month, the National Urban League decries high-stakes tests as "using low-achievers as cannon fodder in the education accountability wars." (See story, below.)
In fact, most states don't yet report the results of high-stakes tests by race or ethnic group. But as the data come out, bad news is spurring legal action.
*Texas -the first state to report test scores on the basis of race and income - faces a lawsuit by Mexican-Americans over the discriminatory impact of its TAAS test, a requirement for promotion and graduation in that state.
*In response to complaints from minority parents, the US Department of Education is investigating high-stakes testing programs in Chicago and North Carolina.
(Programs in Nevada, Ohio, and Texas are being monitored, after similar investigations were closed, to ensure that officials keep commitments to provide all students with the instruction needed to pass the test.)
*Last week, the department's Office of Civil Rights also requested data on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) to determine whether a formal investigation is needed. At the same time, the Boston NAACP assailed the MCAS as harmful to blacks and Latinos. Activists say that lawsuits are likely in that state.
Testing, however, is not the only area drawing fire. Discipline is also entering the limelight - particularly so-called zero-tolerance policies that require suspension or expulsion for certain infractions, regardless of circumstances.
In Decatur, Ill., the Rev. Jesse Jackson protested the expulsion of seven African-American students for brawling at a school football game. Such policies in schools are too broad-based, he argued: "There's not zero tolerance for incompetent teachers. There's not zero tolerance for [school] underfunding."
The issue in all these protests is whether it's right for kids to bear the consequences of poor performance before the schools genuinely provide equal opportunity for education to all students.
"It's hard to see this [MCAS] test as a positive tool when it translates as so many kids coming home with big F's," says Mary Jo Marion, associate director of the Mauricio Gaston Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, which recently published an analysis of the 1998 MCAS results. (1999 scores have not been broken down by racial or ethnic groups.)
"Everywhere in Massachusetts - even in the suburbs - there's a gap between white and minority scores. But we've known about these gaps for a long time. Do we really need a spotlight in a room that is well lit?" she adds.
In Chicago, civil rights activists are filing freedom of information requests to break out the results of testing by race. "We are contemplating a lawsuit," says Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, a Chicago-based group, whose complaint of possible discrimination prompted the Department of Education's investigation. "Decatur shows that people are beginning to think that having a one-size-fits-all punishment or testing system does not address the needs of children."
Harvard's Professor Orfield is directing a national study to document the impact of high-stakes tests on poor and minority students. It's difficult to assess these data, because most states aren't yet making them available, he says. But there's abundant evidence that denying students diplomas hurts the prospects for poor students.
"If we take kids who are getting a bad education and coming from a situation of social crisis and then make them unemployable in the process, we are not helping them or their communities. [Such tests] have a very large cost for people who are politically powerless," he says.
Reformers respond that it's not the failure to graduate that hurts kids, it's pretending that they have the skills to be successful in life when they do not.
"It is quite evident, no matter how you cut the data, that minority and poor kids are learning less of what they need to know than other kids," says Kati Haycock, executive director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that supports education reform. "There are already big-time consequences for kids if they learn or don't learn, but we hide it from them until they get out of school."
Testing makes it clear to parents and to school systems that students need help at a time when it is still possible to help, she says.
In response to concerns over high failure rates, states such as Texas, North Carolina, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York are already directing new resources for remediation to help failing students. "The numbers look bleak now, but we're putting $20 million into schools for remediation - and have requested $22 million for next year," says Alan Safran, deputy commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Education.
He urges caution in over-interpreting early test results. "Students won't take the test seriously until 2001. We want to activate parents whose kids are failing to insist on remediation and extra help," he adds.
Last week, the Massachusetts Board of Education deliberately proposed a low passing score for the MCAS tests to ensure that failure rates in the first years of the test are not overwhelming.
"We are very fearful of a backlash building," says Abigail Thernstrom, a member of the Massachusetts Board of Education.
In New York, educators are also wary of the political impact of high failure rates on required statewide tests. More than a third of New York City's 11th-graders would be ineligible to graduate if the English language standard due to take effect next year were in force today. In some neighborhoods, fewer than 5 percent of high school seniors would qualify for diplomas, says Diane Ravitch of the Brookings Institution in Washington, who is a longtime analyst of New York public education.
But New York's commissioner of education insists that parents are rallying to the need for higher standards of learning and discipline in public schools.
"I've been struck by the fact that in community meetings in cities so far [Buffalo, Syracuse, and Rochester], parents recognize immediately that if the Regents were to back off the high standards in New York, children in the suburbs would continue to get a Regents-level education," Richard Mills says. "Only the children in the cities would get something else.
"Everyone has known for a very long time that students in the cities have performed at a lower level, but there was no compelling argument to force change. Now there is," he adds. The new system requires the poorest schools to improve or close.
"What we're saying to the community," he says, "is that these standards are for all children, and we are going to leave no one behind."
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