Test Case

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Academically, Inglewood ranks in the bottom 10 percent of public schools in California, as measured by a new state rating system.

Like a lot of high school seniors, Rasheda Daniel spends much of her time thinking about college. The Inglewood High School honor-roll student has her heart set on nearby Loyola Marymount University. "I just love that school," she says. Some of her friends have also applied there, and they hope to room together as freshmen. Rasheda, a rail-thin 17-year-old with a quick wit and a flair for the theatrical, has already picked out the décor. "It's going to have all inflatable furniture," she says, "and lava lamps!"

Inglewood High, not far from Los Angeles International Airport, serves about 2,000 working-class students, nearly all of whom are Latino or African-American. About 25 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Academically, Inglewood ranks in the bottom 10 percent of public schools in California, as measured by a new state rating system.

Until recently, the school offered just three Advanced Placement courses, in English, government, and U.S. history. Rasheda took the history class last year and is currently enrolled in the other two. Meanwhile, her peers at Beverly Hills High School, about 10 miles away, choose from more than a dozen AP courses, including chemistry, physics, biology, computer science, and calculus.

Of course, not all schools are created equal. Even in a state like California, where public school spending is largely equalized, there are still the haves and the have-nots. It's no surprise that affluent Beverly Hills High, which prides itself on rigorous academic standards and high expectations, offers so many AP courses. But why shouldn't students like Rasheda have the same opportunities?

That's what the American Civil Liberties Union wants to know. Last summer, the organization's Southern California chapter filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court claiming that the Inglewood Unified School District, the state of California, the state board of education, and the state superintendent are denying students like Rasheda equal and adequate access to AP courses. The class action names Rasheda and three other Inglewood High students as plaintiffs. Although the lawsuit singles out Inglewood High, it is a test case designed to force change throughout the state.

‘California is flunking out when it comes to educating these students, denying them intellectually challenging courses designed to prepare them for college.’

Mark Rosenbaum,
Legal Director,
Southern California

"California is flunking out when it comes to educating these students, denying them intellectually challenging courses designed to prepare them for college and holding them back by squelching their competitive chances of acceptance at colleges and universities," Mark Rosenbaum, the legal director of the ACLU's Southern California office, said at a July press conference announcing the lawsuit.

Rasheda and her fellow plaintiffs—Darren Dix Jr., Andre Green, and Jorge Gutierrez—offered to lend their names to the lawsuit after meeting with ACLU lawyers and staff members last spring. "We talked to students and parents from several other schools," says ACLU attorney Rocio Cordoba, "but these students were the ones who were ready and willing to make this claim. They recognized what kind of precedent this will set for students who come behind them."

At a restaurant in downtown Inglewood, Cordoba and her colleagues told the students about widespread inequities in the AP program in California. "I knew other schools had more AP classes," says Andre, a 17-year-old senior, "but I didn't know how bad it was." Darren, also a senior, confesses that he doesn't understand how it is that two high schools in the same county—Inglewood and Beverly Hills—can have such dissimilar programs. "It's like having one red shoe and one blue shoe on the same person," he says, shaking his head. "It doesn't make sense."

The case, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, is a modern-day version of the 1950s legal battles that sought to end disparities between black and white schools.

The case, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, is a modern-day version of the 1950s legal battles that sought to end disparities between black and white schools, particularly in the segregated South. As a result of such suits, the courts and education officials turned to desegregation plans and affirmative action programs to close the gap. But today, with those remedies in retreat in California, Texas, and elsewhere, civil rights advocates are pursuing a new strategy, seeking changes in the school curriculum to address education's historical inequities.

As plaintiffs in a pioneering lawsuit, the four Inglewood High students are being hailed as heroes. Last summer, Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn told a reporter, "We should be proud of these kids for making a decision to challenge a system that has not been fair to them."

The irony of the mayor's comments weren't lost on the plaintiffs. "Let me get this straight," says Andre Green. "We sue the mayor's school district, and he calls us heroes. Hmm. Interesting."

The Advanced Placement program, which is sponsored by the College Board and administered by the Educational Testing Service, dates to the mid-1950s. At the time, a number of educators were concerned that too many of the nation's best high schoolers—in particular, those from elite public and private schools—were bored by introductory college courses, which often repeated material the students had already learned. The educators asked: Why not offer some of these college-level courses in high school and give students college credit if they score well on companion tests? After an experimental exam in 1954 involving students from 27 public and private secondary schools, the Advanced Placement program was born. The College Board designed special AP courses in 11 subjects that could be offered by participating schools. That course list has since grown to 33.

From the beginning, AP tests were open to all students. But as journalist and author Jay Mathews writes in his 1998 book Class Struggle: What's Wrong (and Right) With America's Best Public High Schools, the program for many years "was drenched in the scent of ivy-covered walls and sherry in the common room." (Mathews, a reporter for TheWashingtonPost, is a member of the board of trustees of Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week.)

From the beginning, AP tests were open to all students.

AP students were mostly from college-prep academies or suburban high schools in the Northeast, and a majority were bound for elite liberal arts colleges.

Today, however, there are AP courses at nearly 13,000 schools—more than half of all high schools in the country. Last year, more than 700,000 candidates took more than 1.1 million exams. Since the program's inception, nearly 8 million candidates have taken almost 12 million exams. The tests, which contain both multiple-choice and free-response sections, are graded on a scale of 1 to 5.

Thousands of colleges and universities throughout the world grant credit, advanced placement, or both to students who receive scores of 3 or higher.

So well-regarded is the program that many states help foot the bill for schools to train AP teachers. Some states cover some or all of the $76 exam fee for students. In California, qualifying low-income students pay only $5 to take the test. A few states go even further: Indiana, for example, requires that public high schools offer at least one AP math class and one AP science class. Many educators and policymakers now use AP test results to measure the quality of individual high schools. Schools, too, use the program as a selling point. The World Wide Web site for Beverly Hills High boasts that it "offers one of the most comprehensive Advanced Placement programs in the nation."

An A from an AP course, for example, is counted as a 5.0, not the traditional 4.0. The weighted grading gives AP students a built-in advantage in the admissions process.

In California, the AP program has grown dramatically over the past decade. In 1988, 39,040 public high school students took 56,668 AP exams. Ten years later, those numbers had more than doubled: 87,683 students took more than 145,000 exams. According to a little-noticed report issued last year by the California State University Institute for Education Reform, the AP program has "grown into a major component and integral part of high school education in California."

AP courses have also become pivotal to the competitive college-admissions process in the state—a key point in the Inglewood students' lawsuit. When calculating the grade point averages of applicants, schools in both the University of California and California State University systems score grades earned in honors and AP courses one point higher than other grades. An A from an AP course, for example, is counted as a 5.0, not the traditional 4.0. The weighted grading gives AP students a built-in advantage in the admissions process.

Indeed, the median GPA for students admitted to the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of California, Berkeley, the state's most selective public universities, is now over 4.0—a score that's impossible for students to reach if their schools have no honors or AP courses.

Recently, the AP program has taken on even more importance for minority students at disadvantaged high schools. For years, California's affirmative action policies helped blacks and Hispanics get into the state's top schools. Often, they were students who had attended schools with few AP offerings, if any.

But Proposition 209, the controversial measure passed in 1996, prohibits the state from taking race into account in college admissions. Now, minority students with little or no access to the AP program must compete straight-up against students whose GPAs are inflated by AP grades. That strikes many people as unfair. Last year, eight minority students who were denied admission to UC-Berkeley sued, arguing that they were rejected because, among other reasons, their schools did not have AP classes.

The study by the Institute for Education Reform notes that while more than 90 percent of California's public high schools have AP programs, they don't always offer many classes. About 20 percent of all high school students in the state attend schools with four or fewer AP classes. Larger schools tend to have more AP classes than smaller ones, and white students tend to have more AP opportunities than minority students do. "But for all ethnic groups," the report says, "there are thousands of students enrolled in schools with relatively small AP programs."

The ACLU found that 81,000 students in California have no access to AP classes.

The ACLU's own research points to similar disparities. The group found that 81,000 students in California have no access to AP classes. More than twice that number—184,000 students—attend schools with 15 or more AP courses. ACLU statistics also suggest that race separates the AP haves and have-nots. Of the state's 144 schools that offer 15 or more AP classes, 65 percent have enrollments that are more than half white and Asian. What's more, African-Americans and Latinos account for just 13 percent of all AP test-takers, though they make up 45 percent of the state's public high school students.

To the ACLU, California's checkerboard AP offerings—combined with the weighted grades used for AP coursework in the college-admissions process—creates a two-tiered educational system. And that, the organization argues, is in violation of the state's constitution, which guarantees all persons "equal rights and opportunities in the educational institutions of the state."

"There is no reason why [minority] students should be denied the ability to compete equally for admission to California's elite universities, or to succeed in college-degree programs, simply because their school did not provide an adequate AP program," says the ACLU's Cordoba.Ultimately, the ACLU's lawsuit aims to do more than simply increase the state's AP offerings. The group wants to dismantle what it sees as a culture of low expectations. Often, Rosenbaum explains, school administrators don't embrace the AP program because they believe many students can't handle—and don't want—a rigorous curriculum. "In too many schools," he says, "there is not an ethos that kids can and should succeed at the highest levels of achievement."

The ACLU wants to dismantle what it sees as a culture of low expectations.

The culture of low expectations infects state officials as well, Rosenbaum argues. "California doesn't regard these kids—particularly low-income, African-American, and Latino kids—as its children and doesn't expect them to succeed and doesn't do what it needs to do to make sure they succeed."

To show the state how it can meet that goal and resolve the litigation, the ACLU hired Jeannie Oakes, a UCLA education professor, to come up with a plan. Oakes, in turn, assembled a team of five other University of California educators. Together, they drafted a 30-page report that makes a case for state action.

The report blames California's AP inequities on several factors. When the weighted-grade scheme for AP courses was adopted by the state university systems in the mid-1980s, it fueled tremendous growth in the program. But the schools that beefed up their AP offerings were those that already had an established college-preparatory curriculum, qualified teachers, and well-prepared students (usually middle-class whites). Many disadvantaged schools, by contrast, lacked such a foundation. When AP courses took on even more importance for college-bound students after Proposition 209, those schools were left even further behind, the group concluded.

California, their report contends, has changed the rules of the college-admissions game "in a way that negatively impacts its poorest and most vulnerable communities."

Oakes and her colleagues recommend that, within five years, California high schools with more than 500 students should offer at least six AP courses, including one each in mathematics and science. But they also advocate that the state provide the support for every school to create a "college-going culture," with college-prep courses for all students, well-qualified teachers, specially trained college counselors, and a "vigorous" AP program. To that end, the experts propose a state grant program for schools with limited AP offerings. How much would such a plan cost? Oakes and her colleagues don't say, but they argue that California, with its "thriving economy and sizable budget surpluses ... is currently well-positioned to support this remedy."

The Oakes report was presented to lawyers from the district and the state in January, and negotiations between the ACLU and the state are under way to settle the lawsuit. "I don't think anyone wants to stand up and fight this thing out," says Michael Hersher, a deputy general counsel for the state department of education. "Everyone concedes that, factually, there are disparities in the AP program."

It appears that the lawsuit has prodded the state to act.

But whether the state will agree to the plan proposed by Oakes and her colleagues remains to be seen. "It's a pretty good plan," Hersher says. "But the devil is in the details." If settlement talks break down, the state is prepared to take the case to trial and argue that the program is a private entity and not subject to the state constitution. "If the ACLU wants to roll the dice and see what a judge will rule," Hersher says, "then we'll do that."

Counters Rosenbaum: "We're prepared to go to court, and we have a watertight complaint. But we're hopeful that it will be resolved." He adds, "If we go to trial, the state will be forced to defend the indefensible."

Already, though, it appears that the lawsuit has prodded the state to act. In January, when Governor Gray Davis presented his budget plan, he called on the legislature to provide funds to make at least one AP class available to every high school student by next fall. The following year, Davis wants to spend $20.5 million to ensure that at least four AP classes are available to every student. "No child in California capable of taking AP classes will be held back because we couldn't get the job done," the Democratic governor said.

That's a good start, Rosenbaum says, but it's not enough. "I don't think it helps to look simply at the number of AP classes," he says. "Our experts say there ought to be at least six courses. But that's not the only ball to keep our eyes on." Rosenbaum says schools must have college counselors, training for teachers, and other support if large numbers of students are going to take advantage of the increased AP offerings.

Officials at the College Board, meanwhile, are closely following events in California.

Officials at the College Board, meanwhile, are closely following events in California. Spokeswoman Chiara Coletti applauds Davis' goals. "That may not be fast enough for some people," Coletti says, "but it indicates that the governor is trying to be a pragmatist. You can't do it overnight."

The New York City-based board would like to see the AP program become more widely available, particularly to minority students, Coletti says. At the same time, it worries that the program could be watered down if it were imposed on schools where students and teachers lack training and preparation. The ACLU's proposal addresses those concerns, Coletti admits, "but that will require a lot of funding."

The issues are not new to the board. In the 1980s, teacher Jaime Escalante proved that low-income, inner-city students could handle the rigors of AP calculus. The story of Escalante and his students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles was widely hailed, in both a best-selling book—reporter Mathews' Escalante: The Best Teacher in America—and a popular movie, "Stand and Deliver."

More than a decade later, the ACLU uses the Escalante story as proof that low-income, minority students, if given the opportunity, will not only enroll in AP classes, but also thrive in them. "School districts rarely say, 'Our kids can't do the work that AP classes require,'" Rosenbaum says, "but that's clearly part of the subtext of what's taking place. The reality is that when these kids do have the proper preparation—and even when they don't—the results are astounding. And the most famous example is Garfield High School."

"For sure, we need more AP classes," Rhuenette Montle, the acting superintendent of the 16,400-student Inglewood schools, said after the ACLU filed its lawsuit last summer. When school opened in the fall, Inglewood High suddenly had six additional AP classes, including biology, calculus, physics, chemistry, and economics. Montle promised "a more rigorous, competitive education for all students." The additional AP courses, she said, had been in the works long before the ACLU announced its legal action. "It is unfortunate that the students who filed the lawsuit did not come to the district administration first," she said.

Rosenbaum is certain the district added the AP courses because of the lawsuit. "Of course they did," he says.

Oddly, none of the four plaintiffs has enrolled in the new AP classes. "That really surprised me," says Inglewood High Assistant Principal Joyce Mayfield. "I would have expected them to be eager to sign up for them."

The lawsuit says the students want to take more AP courses, particularly in math and science, to enhance their college and career prospects. According to the suit, for example, Darren Dix hopes "to attend medical school after doing his undergraduate work at a University of California school in order to become a pediatrician."

Jorge Gutierrez, at 14 the youngest of the plaintiffs, is described as someone "who wants the opportunity to enroll in AP courses in the languages and sciences."

Jorge is only a sophomore, so he may take some of the new AP courses another year. But the others seem to be suffering from senioritis. They are busy making college plans, and each is already taking AP English and government.

'Why can't we have the same thing?'

Inglewood High School,

"It's a hectic year, being a senior," says Darren, 18. He elected not to take any more science classes this year. (He's taken all of them, except for the new AP courses.) He still wants to become a doctor, though he has now decided to apply to two California State University schools—Dominguez Hills and Los Angeles—and not to any of the more selective University of California schools. A thoughtful, soft-spoken young man with a friendly smile, he seems certain to go far.

Darren and the others make it clear that, ultimately, the lawsuit isn't really about them at all. Although they're proud to be part of it, they say they're fighting for the next generation of students. "I have a younger sister and also younger cousins," explains Andre, a tall and lanky youth with cornrowed hair, "and I don't want them to have to go through school getting a lesser education than any other kid."

Once, Andre visited a large suburban high school in nearby Orange County. "This school was big," he says. "I went to some of the classrooms, and they had computers in almost every room. New books for everyone—a home set and a set for school. Basically, they had everything that is needed to get a good education."

How did it make him feel? "Cheated!" he says. "Like, why can't we have the same thing? At some suburban schools, the students get taught more because they're expected to know more, whereas if you go to school in an area like this, some people say, 'Why teach them this? Why give them this? All they're going to do is mess it up.' And that's wrong."

Vol. 19, Issue 25, Pages 34-38

Published in Print: March 1, 2000, as Test Case
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