Report Attacks Enforcement of Ability-Grouping Practices

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About 10 percent of the nation's public middle schools use ability-grouping practices that verge on outright racial discrimination, a new report by the General Accounting Office has concluded.

Some 1,700, or 10 percent, of the nation's middle schools "ability-group students in a possibly discriminatory manner," the study, which focuses on the enforcement efforts of the Education Department's office for civil rights, found.

There is "a disproportionate number of minority students in some classes in more than half of the nation's school districts," the report, released last week, stated.

"Little is gained from school desegregation if minority and majority students are illegally resegregated within the school building," the GAO added.

In particular, the study questioned the assignment of so many minority students to "lower-ability classes and special-education programs.''

Because it has inadequately monitored the schools, the study concluded, the "OCR has sometimes failed to determine if discriminatory practices it identified have been stopped."

The GAO recommended that the OCR develop regulations to identify school procedures for assigning students to classes through ability grouping and upgrade its investigation procedures.

In written remarks, Michael L. Williams, assistant secretary of education for civil rights, emphasized that the investigation of "ability grouping that results in segregation on the basis of race and national origin" is a high priority of his office.

Mr. Williams has said several times since he took over as head of the office last year that investigating ability-grouping practices would be among his top priorities. (See Education Week, Feb. 20, 1991.)

In addition, he said last week, the OCR is developing policies to address the problem of the disproportionately large numbers of minority students who are assigned to special-education classes. The policies are to take effect in the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1, he said.

In the meantime, Mr. Williams promised only a "modest number of compliance reviews" on a range of educational practices, including ability grouping.

The GAO and OCR materials were slated to be formally aired at a Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee hearing. Instead, they were released informally when the hearing was abruptly canceled.

Acknowledging that the OCR has fallen short in its enforcement efforts, Mr. Williams said burgeoning workloads and budget constraints have made the task even more difficult.

"I determined upon my arrival [in July 1990] that insufficient resources had been devoted to the performance of critical legal, policy, and enforcement activities," he said.

He noted that the OCR received 3,382 complaints in fiscal 1990, a 71 percent increase over fiscal 1987. Between Oct. 1 and March 31, he said, the OCR received 1,695 complaints.

Most complaints allege discrimination against the handicapped, he noted.

Referring to criticism of the alleged lack of OCR followup with school districts that promise to correct violations, he said he has made such monitoring mandatory.

School plans must inform the OCR "when and where corrective actions will be initiated and completed," he said.

Mr. Williams also noted that the Bush Administration requested $56 million for the OCR for fiscal 1992, a $7.5-million increase over the appropriation for the current fiscal year.

In testimony also planned for the canceled committee hearing, Senator Paul Simon, Democrat of Illinois, criticized the Education Department's handling of the race-based-scholarship controversy.

While Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander has rescinded statements that seemed to bar such scholarships, "some businesses have stopped contributing" to at least one minority scholarship program, the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, Mr. Simon said in a statement.

He termed the situation a "tragedy" that "destroyed hope for thousands of youth."

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