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Big-City Districts Urged To Collect Data by Ethnicity

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Attempts by urban school districts to be "race-neutral" in collecting student-performance data may impede efforts to ensure that their placement and promotion policies do not inhibit minorities' access to higher education, a forthcoming report warns.

The report, based on a survey of 36 big-city districts, found that few of the districts separately monitor the progress of black and Hispanic students.

While the overwhelming majority of the respondents have programs to boost postsecondary educational opportunities for minority students, the report suggests that school systems' policies themselves--including tracking, grade retention, and restrictive placement in first-year algebra classes--may be major impediments to minority advancement.

"If we don't have information on where the kids are, and how they are dealt with," said Samuel B. Husk, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which prepared the report along with the College Board, "we'll never deal with the equity issue. And we need to address it immediately."

James H. Lytle, executive director for research and evaluation for the Philadelphia school district and the author of the report, acknowledged that collecting data by race might provoke controversy, since it would underscore gaps between white and minority achievement. But, he said, such a step is necessary to close those gaps.

"None of the superintendents and board members [on the council] is naive," he said in an interview last week. "They know the results are not going to be favorable to blacks and Hispanics."

"But by not giving more direct attention to student performance as it relates to race and ethnicity," he said, "they haven't made the issues clear enough."

Mr. Lytle noted that two of the districts surveyed--Los Angeles and Dade County, Fla.--have moved the furthest to analyze performance data by race and ethnic group, while others are developing comprehensive information systems that would provide such statistics.

And he pointed out that two other districts surveyed--Norfolk, Va., and San Diego--have taken steps to eliminate policies they considered to be barriers to student advancement.

"A couple of cities took a hard look in the mirror, and found that their policies were getting in the way, rather than facilitating minority access," Mr. Lytle said. "Rather than initiate programs, they removed barriers" such as tracking.

But, he cautioned, it is too early to tell whether such efforts have resulted in increased minority enrollment in higher education.

With this report, "Minority Student Access to and Preparation for Higher Education," slated for release early next month, the Council of the Great City Schools and the College Board join a growing list of critics questioning the wisdom of such practices as tracking and grade retention.

In recent months, for example, an advocacy group has urged the Boston schools to abolish ability grouping, and school chiefs in Massachusetts and New York City have proposed scrapping current student-retention policies. (See Education Week, May 16, 1990.)

Effects on College Prospects

The new study was aimed, officials said, at determining whether such policies have had a negative impact on the college prospects of minority youths.

Citing previously released data, the report notes that the college-going rate for blacks and Hispanics has declined over the past decade, while the rate for whites has risen.

At the same time, it notes, black enlistment in the armed services and enrollment in postsecondary vocational and technical schools appears to have increased during the 1980's.

"Apparently," a draft of the report states, "the decline in minority college enrollment in the 1980's can in part be explained as an economic or 'market' decision by minority high-school graduates who have opted for military enlistment or for education and training leading directly to jobs."

Federal and state policies may also have affected the college-going rate, the report suggests. The decline in need-based student aid may have discouraged youths from low-income families from aspiring to higher education, while stiffer high-school graduation requirements may have led some students to drop out of school or to take less demanding coursework.

Programs for Minorities

To help arrest such trends, the report notes, most large urban districts have developed programs to encourage minority students to go on to higher education.

All but two of the cities surveyed said they have developed programs for enhancing such participation, and most rate them as successful, it notes. These programs include "college nights," preparation for college-admission tests, special counseling, and assistance in obtaining financial aid.

In addition, the report says, 33 of the 36 districts said the flagship universities in their states actively recruited minority candidates, and half the districts have forged links with historically black colleges.

But only 3 of the cities surveyed could provide detailed information on where their graduates went to college, the report found, and most lacked data on the race and ethnicity of their graduates.

These findings, the draft report states, suggest that "the ability to monitor and analyze minority-student access, both within-year and longitudinally, is severely limited in most large city districts."

Algebra as 'Gatekeeper'

In addition to such shortcomings, the report says, most urban districts lack data about the performance of minority students.

As a result, said the author, Mr. Lytle, cities are unable to evaluate whether their own policies have erected barriers to minority participation in higher education.

"What we are trying to advocate is that districts look very carefully at how their teaching is affecting minority kids," he said.

According to the survey, two-thirds of the districts "disaggregate" at least some performance data by race and ethnicity. But, it found, only a third collect competency-test-score data in that way.

Cities have avoided such analyses in order to be "race-neutral," Mr. Lytle said.

"Following on the heels of desegregation, they made the decision they would be color-blind," he said. "That's one way to ensure equitable treatment."

But the report notes that many districts have retained policies that may inhibit minority advancement.

For example, it notes, despite research evidence that tracking appears to restrict the ability of lower-performing students to take college-preparatory courses, most districts offer separate levels of coursework in high schools.

Some 28 of 31 districts responding to the survey offer multiple levels of English or mathematics in high school, and 80 percent have three or more levels of 10th-grade English.

In addition, the study found, districts rely mostly on "informal" methods to place students in first-year algebra, a course that research shows tends to be a "gatekeeper" course for college-preparatory tracks.

"Decisions about algebra usually determine which English section a student is in, or whether he or she will take chemistry," Mr. Lytle said. "But not many parents or kids themselves know what the consequences are of not being able to take algebra."

Core Curriculum in Math

To enhance opportunities for minority youths, the report urges districts to consider adopting the curricular-reform recommendations of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. In its 1989 report, "Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics," the nctm recommends a core curriculum for all students in grades 9-12.

"They are specifically concerned," Mr. Lytle said, "that when it is developed, the curriculum becomes one that improves learning in math generally, and that there is also the likelihood for success for females and minority students."

In addition, said Mr. Husk of the Great City Schools, his organization and the College Board are urging districts to re-examine their tracking and grade-retention policies. The report notes that such policies tend to exist because of local tradition, rather than evidence of their effectiveness.

"We're not saying school districts have to abandon those policies," Mr. Husk said. "What they have to have is a comprehensive policy that deals with the issue" of minority advancement.

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