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Afro-Centric Study Boosts Performance By Black Students, Researcher Finds

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Studying Africa and African-American history and culture can lead to improved overall academic performance by black students, a new study by a North Carolina State University researcher suggests.

The research, presented last week to students and faculty members in Temple University's African-American studies department in Philadelphia, is expected to fan the flames of a growing debate across the country over the purported benefits of an "Afro-centric" school curricula for black students. In recent years, a number of major school districts--including Portland, Ore., Baltimore, Washington, Atlanta, and Detroit--have taken steps to revamp their curricula to focus on the contributions of Africa and African Americans in all subject areas.

Proponents of such efforts have contended that studies of their own cultures will enhance the self-esteem of black students and inspire them to succeed academically. Little research exists, however, to support such claims, both advocates and critics of the programs acknowledge.

"Now," said Faheen Ashanti, who conducted the study at North Carolina State University, "they have a tool to go with what they've been talking and writing about."

For his study, Mr. Ashanti, a counseling psychologist at the university, first developed a test to gauge both black and white students' knowledge about black history and culture.

The short examination--termed the "Ashanti Brainwashing Test" by its author--is divided into two parts. The first section consists of 25 questions devoted to basic information about Western culture typically taught in precollegiate classrooms. The second set of 25 questions deals exclusively with the contributions of Africa and African Americans.

Each question on the first part is matched with a question on the second part, Mr. Ashanti said. For example, he said, "Who wrote Huckleberry Finn?" is matched with "Who wrote Up From Slavery?"

Mr. Ashanti administered the test to 405 students, both black and white, who ranged in grade level from 8th grade to the senior year of college. Every student, he said, scored 90 percent or higher on the first part of the test. The average score on the black-studies section, however, was 8 percent, he said.

Mr. Ashanti then focused on a group of 157 black college students who had done poorly on the black-studies portion of the test. Most of the students had done well academically in high school, he said, but many had failing grade-point averages in college.

These students enrolled for a full academic year in a non-credit, once-a-week course in African-American history and culture taught by Mr. Ashanti.

At the end of their year of study, Mr. Ashanti said, these students had, on average, improved their grade-point average by 1 full point, from 1.6 to 2.6. Forty percent of the students who took the course had averages of 3.0 and higher by the end of their year of study, he added.

Moreover, Mr. Ashanti contends, the students also had fewer emotion mental-health problems after taking the course. He bases that conclusion both on his own observations as a psychologist and on the results of a "stress management" survey the students completed at the beginning and the end of the course.

"It appears to me that, while intentions have been good," he said, "money may have been wasted in terms of all the training and remedial programs developed for minorities when we could have made some simple adjustments in the curriculum."

"When students begin to see themselves in the curriculum," he added, "all of a sudden there is an identification with it and students take an interest in learning."

Mr. Ashanti is completing analysis on a final group of 52 college students enrolled in the course, and hopes to have complete data by next month.

Molefi Kete Asante, director of Temple's African-American studies department and a leading proponent of "Afro-centric" school programs, said the findings are noteworthy. He plans to publish Mr. Ashanti's study next year, either through the university's Institute of African-American Affairs or in the Journal of Black Studies, a scholarly California-based publication that he edits.

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