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Committee Differs on Closing Achievement Gap

Minority Students’ Achievement Dips in Middle School

A majority of the Minority Student Achievement Oversight Committee (MSAOC) members recommended, Jan. 13, that Fairfax County Public Schools should increase funding for after-school and Saturday remediation; that the strategic targets should focus on closing the opportunity gap for black and Hispanic students, particularly for advanced placement enrollment; that black and Hispanic students’ participation in gifted-and-talented (GT) programs should be increased by at least 3 percent each year; and that the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology preparation test should be implemented solely at underrepresented schools.

Four members of the committee said that before the school system can close the minority achievement gap and attract minorities to the GT program and Jefferson, it must first teach them to read, by using explicit phonics.

"It is time to put the ideology aside and put the children first. It is time for Fairfax County to adopt the reading reforms recommended by the National Institutes of Health [NIH]," said Judy Johnson, one of the four signers of the minority report and president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, of the reforms that include phonics.

THE MINORITY REPORT, submitted by Johnson, Lorraine Robinson, Jacqueline Stephens and James Jones Jr., all appointees to the MSAOC, compared the county's Stanford 9, Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) and Standards of Learning (SOL) reading tests for black and Hispanic students, with minority students' test scores in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Houston. It concluded minorities in those areas were faring better on the tests than in Fairfax, because those areas adopted the NIH reforms.

In addition, the four also questioned the validity of the oversight committee's report, saying it was written by schools staff members who are just advocating more funding for their programs instead of focusing on programs in other jurisdictions that are getting better results at closing the achievement gap.

"On this committee, the administrators responsible for minority achievement oversee themselves. That, by definition, is conflict of interest," Johnson read from the dissenting report. "We recommend, in the future, two MSA [Minority Student Achievement] reports. One would be like the current report card from the MSA administrators. The second would be an independent report, from an MSA oversight committee whose members are not school-system administrators."

The chairman of the committee, Charles James Jr., defended the MSAOC report submitted on behalf of the majority members, saying each member of the committee was assigned to a subcommittee, which held meetings, analyzed data requested from the school system regarding test scores and enrollment figures and was responsible for writing its own report. The subcommittee reports were then combined into the overall report presented last week.

Nancy Sprague, assistant superintendent for Instructional Services, said many of the facts and figures quoted in the dissenting report are simply wrong. She said staff was working on a response to the dissenting report.

"A vast majority in this packet is the same that has been handed out before … it is a misuse of data especially with the California results. It is comparing a first-grade test to our fourth-grade test," Sprague said. "The first-grade test doesn't measure reading, it measures phonics and is vastly different than the fourth-grade test. There is a lot of misuse of data, and we should have a chance to respond."

Johnson defended the data saying, "This data has been circulated before, and if there was anything wrong with the numbers, I would have heard it before now. The data came from the school system."

Two other dissenting members, who were in attendance at the presentation, declined to enter the data debate and instead tried to bring the focus back to the issue at hand, the minority students.

"We're not that far apart. My major concern is those 1,000 people [expected not to graduate next year because of the SOL requirements]. Where will they be in 2004?" said Jones. "I know AP is important. IB [International Baccalaureate] is important. But we need to think of the blue-collar work force, which is the majority of our students."

BESIDES THE ISSUES raised by the dissenting report, the oversight committee raised a few concerns of its own, particularly concerning minority students participating in advanced academic programs, minority suspension rates, retention of minority teachers and eighth-grade SOL scores.

"All students can learn at higher academic levels," James said. "Human diversity must be recognized and valued. And parents must be treated as partners."

To that end, Ralph Cooper, a member of the oversight committee, created an "Advocacy Handbook for Parents," which is aimed at minority parents and explains the promotion and graduation requirements. In addition, it encourages parents to become more involved and provides tips on how to begin a child on the path to succeeding in advanced academic programs. The handbook will be translated into the major languages used by the school system, such as Spanish, Farsi, Arabic and Korean, and is not yet available to the general public.

In addition, the committee raised concerns over the eighth-grade SOL scores for English and math.

Sylvia Washington, a teacher and subcommittee chair, said the SOL pass rate for black and Hispanic students has increased between 1998 and 2002, with the biggest improvements being fifth-grade math and end-of-course Algebra I, typically administered in high school, for black students.

"The smallest gains for black students were for eighth-grade reading. Something is happening in middle schools," Washington said. "Hispanic students lost ground in eighth-grade reading and math. Again, something is happening in middle school."