I don’t think I was the only one who was surprised to hear out of the mouth of Dr. Jann Murray-Garcia the idea that race was a “red herring” in the discussion about AIM (Alternative Instructional Model). By the conclusion of her comments on Thursday, she acknowledged disappointment in the number of African American students identified for the AIM program, but deemed the issue of program size more important.
In fact, that is the bottom line that came out of the school board discussion on Thursday. Almost to a person, the board members acknowledged concerns about the demographics, but preferred to allow the staff to tweak the testing protocols to the idea of changing course, or even pausing implementation of the 98th percentile.
As we reported last week, the district update on the AIM program seems that this year the number of AIM-identified students falls from 146 to 82. That number drops to 46, the district projects, when the threshold is raised to the 98th percentile.
Moreover, the number of blacks and Latinos was troubling: the first iteration of changes resulted in just four Latinos (in a district with a population of 20 percent Latinos) and one black. And those numbers would fall to 3 and 0, respectively, when the district raises the floor to the 98th percentile.
The board members had differing takes on this issue. Madhavi Sunder, the board president, asked her colleagues, “Are the racial demographics acceptable?” She suggested we put a pause button on the 98th percentile. Her colleagues first argued against that approach, and then argued that such a motion would be a Brown Act violation.
Barbara Archer would explain that she was “not ready to talk about the 98th percentile” issue. She also was not prepared to argue that the numbers of blacks and Latinos were unacceptable until the district has finalized numbers.
She did argue that we have a lot of work to do across the board, arguing that this is “a global issue” across the district, that of achievement for disadvantaged students. She argued that she knew the size of the AIM program would shrink but argued that AIM needs to be “needs based, not demands based.”
Alan Fernandes directly stated that he “doesn’t find the demographics acceptable,” but he did hear that the district is looking into ways to change it. He said he is not married to this approach and would be willing to support a change down the road.
Susan Lovenburg expressed concerns “that the protocol put in place hasn’t matched the diversity of the district as she hoped that it would.”
What becomes clear is that the designed changes by the board were not just an attempt to introduce transparency into the selection process – as it clearly has, but that transparency has come at a price, the price being a smaller program and, by necessity, a less diverse program.
I remain troubled at the lack of educational rationale for shrinking the program and the lack of real assessment as to whether shrinking the program is to the advantage of the students who will be locked out of self-contained AIM in future years, or even to the advantage of the students who would never be in an AIM program.
It is clear at this point that the majority of the board members are all right with a smaller AIM program. However, there is a byproduct and that is that smaller is inevitably less reflective of district demographics. Mathematically, it is easy to demonstrate that, as you shrink you sample size, the standard errors increase – that means that, naturally, there will be more variation from the representative student population as a sample size decreases.
Add in the fact that there are built-in advantages for some students over others, and you will invariably end up with a less representative sample – that skews away from disadvantaged kids any time you shrink the sample size.
There was a lot of talk about the need to address the achievement gap on a district- wide basis. The issue was articulated by Board President Madhavi Sunder.
She said, “This is very much about achievement gap, because the achievement gap is not only about kids who are below grade level. The achievement gap is about identifying the needs of all under-privileged students and meeting their needs directly.”
She added, “So if we’re not identifying the needs of high potential kids from poor backgrounds, from Latino backgrounds and from Black backgrounds, we are not addressing the achievement gap there.” Ms. Sunder continued, “For me the achievement gap is about kids at all levels being properly identified and being properly served.”
Madhavi Sunder also confronted the superintendent as to whether race was really a red herring.
Winfred Roberson, who is on his way out from the district, responded, “I think we should look at it in respect to naming any program a gifted program. I think families and people will take offense if their children are not considered gifted – I think that’s part of the reason why the former board modified the name.”
Ms. Sunder read the results and asked if they are acceptable to the superintendent. She argued, “Do we think that the tests are accurate? Are we using the wrong tests if they’re not identifying the true potential in every one of our communities?” She said, “That to me makes me question the tests – because I know there is intellectual gifted-potential in every one of our communities. If our tests aren’t getting us there then I think it undermines my confidence in the tests.”
The superintendent responded, “We are always concerned about diversity.”
There were also questions about what the drop in numbers meant. Alan Fernandes noted that the bulk of the drop in students was due to the elimination of private testing. Staff suggested that private testing accounted for about 30 of the overall drop, and the rest may simply be year to year fluctuation Alan Fernandes suggested.
Madhavi Sunder disagreed with this assessment. She believes that not having private tests should not have drastically reduced the number of enrolled students. She also noted that the testing changes were implemented. She cited the fact that the TONI had a 15 percent qualification rate while the Naglieri played a role at only 7 percent.
From her standpoint, the bottom line is that “the district has moved away from a longstanding commitment to educate students who are high achieving.” For her, the district has moved from a commitment to help each student reach his or her “highest potential,” to a new goal which is just for each student to “meet or exceed standards.”
She argues that the program costs almost nothing. We were were serving 120 students per grade in this program – 20 percent of the students in the grade – at relatively no cost. The program was diverse, students were thriving, and there were wait lists to get into the program – by all measures, a successful district program.
Now we have drastically reduced the program with little or not educational rational for the change, and it has resulted in a much smaller and much less diverse program overall.
For Barbara Archer, however, the need was to move the program from “demands based” to “needs based.” She said that she knew these changes would cause the program size to shrink.
Where I think I’m still stuck, however, is how we assess the difference between needs based and demands based. I’m still lost on the concept of knowing who needs the program versus who wants the program, and how we determine that through the use of standardized tests.
—David M. Greenwald reporting