Civil rights survey: 3,000 US high schools don't have math beyond Algebra I

The latest Civil Rights Data Collection shows, as never before, the education inequities that hold various groups of students back.

To better diagnose achievement gaps and help education leaders tailor solutions, federal civil rights officials on Thursday released an expanded, searchable set of information – drawn from schools in more than 7,000 districts and representing at least three-quarters of American students.

The survey’s data show, as never before, the education inequities that hold various groups of students back.

For example, in 3,000 high schools, math classes don’t go higher than Algebra I, and in 7,300 schools, students had no access to calculus. Schools serving mostly African-American students are twice as likely to have inexperienced teachers as are schools serving mostly whites in the same district.

“Transparency is the path to reform, and it’s only through shining a bright spotlight on where opportunity gaps exist that we can really make headway on closing the achievement gap,” said Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights in the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in a conference call with reporters Thursday.

“These data paint a portrait of a sad truth in America’s schools,” she said, “that the promise of fundamental fairness hasn’t reached whole groups of students that will need the opportunity to succeed, to get out of poverty, to ensure their dreams come true, and indeed to ensure our country’s prosperity.”

Part 1 of the 2009-10 Civil Rights Data Collection was released Thursday. Among many items, it includes whether districts offer pre-kindergarten or gifted and talented programs. It shows how many counselors each school has. And it breaks down most items into racial groups, as well as disability status and whether students are English-language learners.

Some new items since the survey was last conducted in 2006 include students’ participation levels in advanced math, science, and other college-prep courses, as well as the number of teachers in each school who have just one or two years of experience.

The survey also includes, for the first time, state-operated schools for the deaf or the blind, and long-term juvenile-justice facilities.

Nearly all states have signed on for new “Common Core” standards, designed to ensure that students complete high school ready for college or a career. But education reformers say school districts have a long way to go to help all students achieve those standards. And this data highlight such gaps.

“To know that there are large numbers of schools, particularly schools that primarily serve students of color, that do not even offer higher-level classes that would lead to college and career readiness, that’s a significant finding and something that districts need to address,” says Robert Rothman, senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, which promotes high school improvements.

The data can show inequities between nearby districts, as well as inequities within districts.

In Boston, for instance, where nearly 80 percent of students are black or Hispanic, 13 percent of teachers are in their first or second year of teaching. In the nearby suburb of Wellesley, Mass., where 81 percent of students are white, 4 percent of teachers are new to the field.

About 1 out of 5 white students in Boston is enrolled in at least one Advanced Placement (college-level) course, compared with 1 out of 12 for both African-Americans and Hispanics. Wellesley has racial disparities as well. There, nearly 1 out of 4 white students are in AP. For Hispanics, it’s 1 out of 6. Black students are 4 percent of the Wellesley district, but not a single black student is in an AP class, according to 2009 data.

In Los Angeles, students and community groups pushed for the district to make a college-prep curriculum available and mandatory for all students, because too many students were languishing in old-fashioned cosmetology courses. They persuaded the L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) to do so in 2005, but progress in implementing the plan was slow.

By 2007, 66 percent of all the district’s courses were college-prep level, up from 62 percent in 2004, the Los Angeles Times reported. But the percentage of students fulfilling entrance requirements for the public university system remained the same, at just over 47 percent.

“The kids that come from schools that don’t have AP courses have very little chance of competing” when it comes to college admissions at a place like the University of California, Los Angeles, says Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project based at that school.

Various versions of the survey have been taken every few years since 1968. “These are some of the only continuously collected numbers about changes on issues relating to race and civil rights for the last 40 years,” Mr. Orfield says.

As one of the researchers who delves deeply into the data collection, Orfield applauds the Obama administration for expanding the categories and making the search functions more user-friendly.

But he criticizes the administration for continuing a Bush policy of allowing states to report racial data in a wider range of categories, including multiracial. It will make it impossible to accurately compare future data sets with the past, Orfield says.

Part 2 of the new data set will be released this fall and will include information on AP test results, teacher absenteeism, and incidents of harassment and bullying. The data will also shed more light on which students are disciplined in various ways, and how much schools use restraint and seclusion – issues that have raised civil rights concerns in recent years.

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