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Educators Warned That Reform May Peril Minority-Student Gains

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New York--The educational "housecleaning" that is being undertaken in the name of reform may create a new barrier between minorities and high-quality schooling, warned speakers at an Educational Testing Service conference here last month.

If it is raised, that barrier will be doubly unfortunate, they said, in view of the "struggles of recent years" that have lessened the gap between minority and white students on standardized tests.

'Most Ignored Fact'el4

"The most ignored fact in the reports on excellence is that minority students are better prepared for this period of reform than ever before," said Gregory R. Anrig, president of the ets.

But their potential, he and others warned, may not be realized if in their haste to upgrade educational standards, educators and state leaders fail to consider the special needs of minority students and their schools in gearing up to meet those requirements.

Requirements Nationwide

According to M. Susana Navarro, director of research and policy analysis for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (maldef), 48 states are in the process of increasing high-school graduation requirements. Thirty-five of the states, she added, have already approved the new requirements, many of which are now in effect.

She said the requirements call for an increase in the number of academic courses--at a time that minority students are already under-represented in those courses.

At the ets conference, "Educational Standards, Testing, and Access,'' Ms. Navarro noted that "in contrast to 40 percent of whites and 50 percent of Asians, only about a quarter of Chicanos are in college-preparatory classes and only 32 percent of blacks are."

College Option 'Remote'

"Many of the minority students in general and vocational tracks take few academic courses," she added, "in part because they've been so poorly prepared to do so, and because they are frequently counseled away from academically rigorous courses. Thus, early in the high- school careers of many minority students, the option of attending college becomes very remote."

Many of the recent national education studies, Ms. Navarro said, have "focused on the vast group of students in the middle of the achievement range and in so-called average schools." Those "furthest from the standards, and in greatest need of help," she added, are those who "are being shunted into the corner during this period of educational housecleaning, and who may have the greatest to lose from the quality movement."

According to Ms. Navarro, "mi-nority students will find it difficult to meet new standards because the schools they attend are frequently those that have the fewest resources, are least able to make the shift to offering substantial numbers of rigorous academic courses, and are staffed by teachers and administrators who feel unprepared to respond effectively to the educational needs of poor and minority students."

A Shared View

Other speakers at the ets conference--and at the College Board's annual forum, also held here last week--shared that view. In speeches and interviews, they pointed to several factors that they said must be considered to ensure increased minority access to quality in grades K-12 and postsecondary education. Among them:

Reform takes time and must start before high school. Ms. Navarro, who spoke in favor of rigorous graduation requirements in California, said she did so because "my hope is that the grade schools and junior high schools will be changed substantially enough so they can gear up the students to meet those requirements."

"I think that can happen," she added, "but you can't just mandate it. You can't expect that schools are gong to change overnight." She suggested that states initiate a 10-year master plan for reform, focus on reforms that are needed in the early grades, and target schools that in the past have not prepared students to meet academic requirements.

Reform needs to address students who have dropped out of school and those who are in school but "pushed aside," said Mary Frances Berry, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and professor of history and law at Howard University.

"Disproportionately," she said, "Hispanic students, Asian students, and black students are in special-education classes. They need something very simple--someone to figure out that they're not learning-disabled."

As 80 percent of the states now require competency testing at some point in a student's high-school career, according to Ms. Navarro, reform must ensure that what is being tested is being taught.

"I'm not opposed to testing," Ms. Berry said. "What I'm opposed to is not giving people the opportunity to learn what they need to learn before you impose some kind of standard, whatever it is, and using it as yet another sorting device."

Reform needs to increase the number of qualified minority teachers.

The under-representation of minorities in teaching "is a great problem," said John O. Stevenson Jr., associate dean of academic affairs for the Bronx Community College of the City University of New York. "If [minorities] look at the institution as a whole and don't see themselves represented as principals, assistant principals, counselors, and faculty, then they will get the impression that the institution is not for them."

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