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Testing Students: New Form of Segregation?


Federal law mandates that schools around the country test their students annually to ensure that no ethnic group is left behind academically. That has teachers scrambling to make sure their classes do well on the test. In many schools, the effort has produced results, but differences remain, and some groups are falling behind.

To announce the most recent test results to her students, the principal at California's Mount Diablo High called separate assemblies: Latinos in one, Asians in another, whites and blacks in their own. She said this was to keep students from harassing each other because different racial groups scored differently.

The policy is stirring up heated debate on campus and in the community. Students had a range of opinions about separated assemblies, from positive - "We can see how our own group is doing and try to improve" - to negative - "I think it feels kind of racist."

Mount Diablo High School is the most ethnically diverse, impoverished and low scoring in the district. Principal Bev Hansen frets about the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which says no racial group can be left behind.

At Diablo, Asians score highest, whites next, African Americans and Latinos last. So Hansen made a decision about how to respond. "I didn't decide to separate anybody by ethnicity and race," she explains, pointing out that the state reports its scores with those categories. "And so it was our decision a year ago to really look closely at the data, to include our students in a review of that data, and the safest, most thoughtful way to do it was indeed to do it by subgroups."

Hansen asked each student to self-identify as one ethnicity, and attend only that group's assembly to hear about test scores, get pep talks from their own community leaders and connect as a group to work together. Some say that sounds like segregation, but Hansen strongly disagrees. "In no way were they meant to segregate in any way. It was to provide a comfortable place, where they sometimes were very surprised how poor their performance is. The dilemma is do you share bad news in front of everybody? And as the leader I chose not to do that."

Her decision brought down a firestorm of criticism from the community. Some, like Jesse Choper, a constitutional law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, questioned the legality of the assemblies. "The motivation here was by no means ugly. They thought they were doing the right thing for all. That doesn't make it right. But I think it's a close question." Choper says he's not so sure that just because the state separates grades based on ethnicity, the principal can separate students.

The question isn't a legal one for Berkeley Education Professor Jabari Mahiri. He says the separate assemblies contradict schools' core goals. "One of the biggest struggles in schools that have diverse populations is to create a sense of community. No matter what kind of group you're coming from, things that contribute to high achievement are going to be the same: doing your homework, developing your writing skills, getting mentorship on issues that you have problems with. None of this is racially defined." Mahiri says he understands that Hansen was trying to confront the complexities of multi-ethnic teaching.

But Ward Connerly, the political activist whose proposition ended affirmative action at California's universities, says there's never a reason for separate assemblies. "Get beyond race," he insists. "[If] you don't get beyond race, you don't purge it out of the body politic by dividing these kids into separate groups."

All this commotion puzzles Hansen. She held similar separate assemblies last year, after every ethnic group - including Asians and whites - failed the exams. She says scores on this year's tests were still below passing, but rose for everyone. On a 1000-point exam, Hispanics were up 50 points, whites 46, African Americans 61.

Hansen says the fuss about the separate assemblies is a smokescreen for the real problem: "Too many of our children of color are not succeeding; they're dropping out of school. That's what this community should be upset about! That's what this principal's upset about, that our students are dropping out of school. I think this is a difficult conversation for this country to have. And that's the real issue that we addressed." She says she would do it again. If Congress renews the No Child Left Behind Act this year, with its testing and ethnic reporting of scores, Principal Hansen may just get her chance to show if separate attention to ethnic groups, in separate assemblies, might raise their scores again.