At 17, Shira Parker has faced family substance abuse, homelessness, and disrupted schooling.
But don’t call Parker an “at-risk” student.
“When people refer to students being at-risk, I do feel like it puts negative expectations on these students,” said Parker, who lives in Perris, Calif., and is enrolled in a diploma program at SIATech, a high school dropout recovery program for students ages 16 to 24.
“I believe calling students at-risk seems as if they are doomed already, and as if the expectation is to fail in life.”
California lawmakers agree. As of Jan. 1, all uses of the term at-risk in the state’s educational and penal codes have been changed to “at-promise,” a term that supporters argue is less stigmatizing.
“We know that language matters, and we know that using asset-based language is important,” said Elisha Smith Arrillaga, the executive director of Education Trust–West, a research and advocacy organization focused on California students. The organization signed on in support of the change.
“One of the reasons the name is so important is because of unconscious bias and all of the things we see play out when students are inappropriately labeled,” she said. “Changing the name is one important step, but there’s many other things to do as well.”
‘At-Risk’ Label Falls Out of Favor
But some in the education field argue that both at-risk and at-promise are vague descriptions that don’t offer enough specifics to drive effective policy.
Criticism of the term at-risk has floated around for years, from researchers and educators who say that the ill-defined description punishes children and youth for factors in their lives often outside their control. California is the first state to officially eliminate the term in state code.
“We’re trying to look at kids as having great potential. That’s the promise we’re trying to focus on,” said Ernie Silva, the executive director of the Reaching At-Promise Students Association. The group was founded in 2015 by SIATech, the charter network that Shira Parker attends.
SIATech, which has more than 20 programs in California, Florida and Arkansas, and the Los Angeles County Office of Education advocated for the terminology change.
There is some evidence how educators label students does influence their view of educational disparities.
In a recent nationally representative survey of 1,300 teachers, the Education Week Research Center captured how teachers use language to talk about gaps in student academic performance in terms of race and income, as well as how their language choices correlate with how they view the causes of those gaps.
For example, 43 percent of teachers who use the term “opportunity gap” to describe differences in average educational outcomes between black and white students believe “society” bears more responsibility in driving those gaps.
For teachers who use the term “achievement gap,” just 27 percent ascribe more responsibility to society.
This particular name change is part of an evolving debate about grouping students under certain labels, particularly those that could be seen as negative. In 2010, President Obama signed “Rosa’s Law,” which removed the term “mental retardation” from federal statutes, replacing it with “intellectual disability.”
The terms “limited English proficient,” which was used in the federal No Child Left Behind Law, as well as “English-language learner,” have also been criticized as underplaying students’ strengths. More positive terms such as “emergent bilingual” or “multilingual students” are what should be used to describe such students, some advocates and educators argue.
California’s change in terminology, however, does not change the definition of the students who would fall under this description.
For example, in California’s education code, at-promise still refers to students who may fail to earn a high school diploma for a variety of reasons, including irregular attendance, low motivation, a past record of academic underachievement, economic disadvantage, or low scores on math or English standardized tests.
In an interview, Silva explained that the definition remains unchanged to alleviate any concerns that California might lose money specifically designated for at-risk students, he said.
Vague and Inconsistent Meaning
Despite the wide usage of at-risk, the term has no consistent definition, said Child Trends, a research organization that focuses on vulnerable youth, in a 2006 paper exploring the term. That lack of consistency can be positive, in that it offers program providers flexibility in defining the term for themselves.
But the Child Trends brief also noted that the term at-risk often refers vaguely to poor life outcomes in general, rather that providing a sharp focus on just what risk a child or youth faces. And focusing on nebulous “risks” could also divert attention from a student’s strengths and assets, the research brief noted.
Ivory Toldson, a professor of counseling psychology at Howard University and the editor-in-chief of The Journal of Negro Education, wrote an essay in January 2019 criticizing the use of at-risk, but noting that at-promise may not be much better.
In an interview, Toldson said that talking about risk is useful. For example, scientists understand that lead exposure places children at risk of brain and nerve damage.
The problem, he said, comes when the term is used as a label for students.
“Racial bias in schools places students at risk for not having adequate instruction,” Toldson said. That means racism is the risk factor, not the fact that a student is a minority.
“I know that those who advocate for using at-promise, their heart is in the right place. We’ve used at-risk for so long, and it’s pretty well-established right now that there are some problems with using the term,” Toldson said. But “to replace one label with any other label will transfer those same types of problems.”
Toldson’s suggestion? Just refer to students as students, and focus on the circumstances that may keep them from achieving their highest potential. All students face some kind of risk, he said.
“All students should have the right to be seen as a person who has those fair share of challenges but also has some potential, and for us to understand those challenges and potential.”
Silva, the executive director of RAPSA, said that the name change still is meaningful. The organization is working with other states in hope that they will adopt similar changes.
“It still makes a difference, because in the real world, in the classroom and in community organizations, people see this idea of ‘risk’ and ‘promise’ as being almost polar opposites,” he said.
“We’re hopeful that people will look at the students we serve as having a lot more potential than being on their way to prison.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 2020 edition of Education Week as ‘At-Promise:’ Can a New Term Change a Student’s Trajectory?