Dec 9, 2012

NCLB and Race-Based Grading

Image Credit: Flickr/ amboo who?

An NPR headline in my Google Reader feed caught my eye this week, "Grading Kids Based on Race." What? How can that be right? What the heck is that all about? How can kids be graded based on race? What happened to civil rights? That's what the headline makes you think, but when you dig deeper and read the article, the issue gets extremely complex. What if grading based on race is not a violation of civil rights, but instead a guarantee that a student's civil rights are not violated?

To understand what I mean, you have to know something about No Child Left Behind, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2001. This law required all students, regardless of ability level, race or gender, to be proficient on an approved standardized test by the year 2014. As a teacher of learning and behaviorally challenged students, the law continues to be extremely frustrating. Some students come to school from homes that provide the stability of three meals per day, new clothing when needed, and the loving support of one or two mentally stable parents. Other students come to school to get their only meal of the day from the cafeteria, sleep on the floor of a one-bedroom apartment with 8-10 other family members, and have absent or addicted parents. To expect students from both backgrounds to learn at the same rate is unreasonable. To expect students with significant learning challenges like dyslexia or dyscaclulia to learn at the same rate as their peers who do not have those challenges is unfair. Quite simply, it goes against the intent of another huge education law, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, which attempts to level the playing field by protecting the rights of students with disabilities.

Where does race fit in with all of this? Well, one of the (I think) good things about NCLB is that it requires all schools to collect and share data about student achievement. Prior to 2001, we might have suspected that Hispanic, African-American, Native American and students with disabilities were not doing as well in school as their white peers, but we didn't have any concrete evidence. Now we do. Not only do we know that students of color are not becoming as proficient in reading/math as their white peers, we also know that they are being labeled as disabled much more often than their white peers (maybe because of their lack of proficiency?) When you really look at the big picture it's a bit startling. The data for NCLB is divided into subgroups: 
  • Economically disadvantaged;
  • Special education;
  • Limited English Proficient students (also known as ELL---English Language Learners); and
  • Students from major racial/ethnic groups.
These nicely divided categories make you think that they are reserved for easily categorized kids. Looking at real kids, though, you see that there isn't much that's nice and neat at all. In most cases kids who are labeled as "not proficient" by NCLB standards fit into multiple, if not all categories. The kids I currently work with are primarily African-Americans who qualify for free/reduced lunch, and have learning disabilities/behavior challenges significant enough to qualify them for special education services. They represent 3 out of the 4 subgroups.
Fact: in our current system, many of the kids who live in poverty are the same as the kids who are in special education. Fact: A disproportionate number of the kids in special education are kids of color. Fact: many kids in poverty are kids of color

The kids who aren't proficient aren't lots of different kids in separate little groups; they are one large group of kids who have a lot in common--skin color (not white) and socioeconomic status (living in poverty.) 

No Child Left Behind demands that we have high expectations for the kids who fit into those subgroups. "High expectations" is one of those catch-phrases that goes along with "Rigor and Relevance," treating all students equally, eliminating cultural stereotypes by making sure we expect the same high quality learning from all of our students. It sounds really good on paper, but in reality setting expectations too high can cause serious problems--especially when we set the exact same high expectation for every student.

Here's what I mean: 
Suppose you grew up in a house where it was expected that you learn to play piano. You practiced for 30 min. every day for 4 years between the ages of 5 and 9. Then when you were 9, the government decided that everyone must learn to play piano. You can't graduate from elementary school without being 90% proficient on a Liszt piano concerto. You totally lucked out, because you already have experience playing piano! Other kids, though, didn't even know that the piano existed. You are all the same age, and in the same grade; but you have a distinct advantage when it comes to being proficient because you already know how to play some piano. On a scale of Liszt concerto proficiency that goes from 0 to 10, you're starting at a 4 or 5, while your peers are at a 0. But you all have the exact same amount of time to get to a 10 on that proficiency scale in order to graduate. It hardly seems fair, right?

Apparently, that analogy describes what NPR called, "Grading Kids Based on Race."  Instead of asking students who are in poverty/of color/in special education/English Language Learners/and not proficient to make the exact same progress as white, middle class, non-disabled, English speaking peers some schools are differentiating.  From the NPR piece:
For example, in the District of Columbia, by the end of the 2016/17 academic year, the goal for reading is that there be 70 percent proficiency for black students and that for white students it be 94 percent proficiency. So that's obviously a 24 percentage point difference. But black students are so far behind their white peers right now in D.C. that they're being asked to make a much greater rate of growth.
There are still high expectations, but now the expectations take into account the students' present level of performance. In the piano analogy, you, who had 4 years of piano lessons, are expected to grow from a 4 to a 9 on the proficiency scale. Your peers, who started out not knowing what a piano was, are expected to go from a 0 to a 5. Everyone grows 5 points on the scale. Everyone had the same amount of instruction. Everyone was expected to make significant progress. The school just didn't expect everyone to come from the same background, have the same set of experiences, and end up at exactly the same place. It's a whole different situation. 

So grading based on race--it sounds really, really flawed. But maybe, really, it isn't. Maybe it's a way to level the playing field a little. Maybe it's a starting point that will allow students of color to begin catching up to their white peers. Maybe high--but reachable--expectations will give way to higher expectations in the future.

What do you think about the idea of grading based on race presented in the NPR article? The comment section is open for your thoughts.


  1. I wonder if there is a bit of disservice here, by claiming that the bias is based mostly on race differences. The piano example is a socioeconomic one at best. What if the child who had access to piano lessons for all those years happened to be black and in turn earned the benefits from that exposure, would the claim still be that educational requirements were all racially-based?
    I think most students who trail behind in school do so not because of the racial background they happen to fall into, but rather their accessibility to quality learning throughout their lives.
    I am a black mother of two (and for clarifications sake alone) I will label them as black because both their parents are African American. My younger two came to be mixed with me and my Irish husband. We have a blended household and while we used to struggle, we still made sure that our children had access to every educational opportunity available to them.
    Things are better these days and all our children are doing well in school, and none of their achievements have been limited because of their race.
    The argument is not to imply that racial biases don't exist, rather, I feel it is more related to the way the article started, by stating that children require one maybe two functioning adults to walk them through their educational career.
    It limits them, unfortunately, when they are told that the color of their skin has some baring on how far they can go.
    Adults need to step up regardless of race and start caring about their children's education, period.
    thanks for the article.

  2. The issues are so complicated I have a difficult time wrapping my head around them, but you lay out some really great points, Jen! I think you are right that it is essential that we expect students to make progress and help them to move forward, while at the same time realizing each child comes to school with a different set of experiences and resources. Great post!

  3. There definitely is a disservice, Kesha, because any time anyone uses data to lump people together for decision-making purposes there are always exceptions. The data released by the Dept. of Ed. and the Office of Civil Rights shows that kids who are not performing well on tests of proficiency are kids of color, kids in poverty, and kids in special education. But they aren't three separate groups, they're basically the same kids being labeled three different ways. The disservice comes when educators or government officials look at all kids of color and make assumptions that they live in poverty or have special needs just because of a trend in standardized test scores.

    In other posts I've written about the struggles I have with all the labels, and the unintended consequences of publishing scores of subgroups (white flight, blaming "those kids" for the "failure" of a school and I've also struggled with the need to give my own kids race labels so that their data can be tracked. Until 2 years ago, the NCLB school data labeled them as black or white--check one box only. My kids don't fit into the neat little NCLB categorization: kids of color=poverty=non-proficient, but sometimes people make assumptions based on appearance. NCLB data seems to give some educators (not the vast majority, by any means) the data to support a very prejudiced view of kids of color. I think the NPR piece really just tried to have a shocker headline. I hope that in reality, schools are not lumping all kids of color into a lowered expectation.

    In my own school district, we have a lot of students who have recently moved from the Chicago Public Schools--a district notorious for it's struggles to delivery quality education to all students, especially in the inner city. When the kids get to Iowa, they haven't had the same style of instruction in reading/math and haven't had the same expectations for learning. They start out so far behind their peers who have done all of their schooling here, but NCLB requires the same progress from everyone--regardless of income, race, ability, native language or prior learning experiences. If schools can use demographic data as an indicator that some kids need tiered expectations (25% proficient by a certain date, 50% proficient by another date, 75% by the next date, etc.) it might help close the gap. But they shouldn't assume that each individual student matching some aspect of the demographic needs a different expectation. We have to look at data for each individual kid--see which ones need the extra instruction, and keep high expectations for those who can meet them.

    Thanks for your comment!

  4. Thanks for your comment, Ellie! It is a very complicated issue. I'd thought things would change more during the Obama administration, but looks like NCLB, testing, and categories of students are here to stay.

  5. I'm not sure I exactly understand this approach. Does it mean they a class where there are more black students, educators are using a different approach or curriculum? Does it mean when black students don't perform as well, we don't analyze what might be wrong with a curriculum, or teaching approach, we just assume it is due to factors related to their race.

    We live in the attendance area for one of the higher minority percentage elementary schools in the ICCSD. While I agree that there might be some students that come from the Chicago area that have some struggles, the ICCSD certainly has also struggled to deliver quality education to some students. I feel there is very little self reflection in our district about how things could be improved.

  6. There are no segregated classrooms in this approach. It all relates to scores on proficiency tests--students in one demographic would be considered "proficient" if they got a certain score; students in another demographic would be considered "proficient" if they got a different score. Basically, this approach individualizes the expectation of what proficient mean on standardized tests. It has absolutely nothing to do with the regular day-to-day curriculum unless it is a district that only "teaches to the test."

    How things are supposed to work in an ideal Iowa school is called the Response to Intervention model. In that model, teachers would look at the kids who are struggling, regardless of race/gender/class, and then try to figure out why that student is struggling. Assessments are conducted to see if a struggling reader has trouble with recognizing letters or with putting consonant sounds together or something else. Then the teacher is supposed to find curriculum that meets the needs of the student. That curriculum should be targeted to the specific problem area shown by assessment results. If the student responds, all is well! If the student doesn't show progress, then the teacher needs to find another method/another curriculum to try. If nothing works, then the teacher can request a special education evaluation. The reality is that the ICCSD doesn't have a lot of curriculum available for teachers to use if the main curriculum doesn't work for a student. Teachers have to use their own resources to search for curriculum and purchase it, or they have to design their own lessons. Teachers have to come up with alternate instructional strategies and find ways to individualize instruction for very large classrooms. It's not always easy to teach 2 kids one way, 3 kids another way, 15 others another way, etc. The ICCSD is really good about hiring staff to work in classrooms where there are struggling students, but it costs a lot to pay people wages/benefits. Most educational funds go to salary/benefits of staff. If there are enough teachers/paraeducators in the room to assist most students, then there usually isn't enough funding to buy individualized curriculum. I think, at least in the ICCSD, it's almost a catch-22 situation.

    I have lots of help in my classroom. But I've had to buy my own materials this year--everything from pencils to staplers and curriculum. Most teachers will do whatever they can to help their students be successful, but there is a limit to what we can afford and still keep our own families up, too. As I write this, I think about the $78,000 the ICCSD is paying a consultant to look at older buildings and determine how to maximize capacity. That could buy a lot of curriculum...


What do you think? Start a conversation here!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...