The Vanguard reported on Friday and Saturday that the OCR (Office for Civil Rights) was looking into allegations that the school district is “discriminating against students on the basis of race /national origin by implementing policies and procedures that result in an underrepresentation of African American, Latino, and English Learner (EL) students in the Recipient’s gifted and talented program, known as the Alternative Instructional Model (AIM).”
Some were surprised that the OCR was seeking “a narrative response to the allegations contained in this complaint.” Why a narrative, when we have numbers?
Part of the problem in this process from the start has been that we have had the numbers that have shown that the new program drops the participation rate of blacks and Latinos – together they make up between one in five and one in four students in the district, down to just five of the 66 or so new AIM students.
Part of the problem that the board faces here is that the board members knew that this was a problem, discussed it openly, and yet were willing to move ahead with it. Susan Lovenburg acknowledged the problem with “identifying an AIM cohort that matches the student demographic profile of our district,” and went so far as to “reject the notion that some races or ethnicities have a higher incidence of giftedness than others.”
The problem is that neither she nor her colleagues were willing to do anything about it – even pause the implementation of the 98th percentile threshold.
In April, a motion that President Madhavi Sunder and Alan Fernandes put forward to continue a third AIM strand, which included, “Direct staff to reassess students who are English learners, low income, learning disabled, or from historically disadvantaged minorities, for the purpose of ensuring the identification for these at risk student groups to ensure equal access to the AIM program in the 2016-17 school year,” was withdrawn when the two could not find a third vote.
Madhavi Sunder said that “the most important thing in this district, in fact many of the people on this board ran on the issue of trust as the preeminent issue with respect to our relationship with families and parents in keeping that trust.” She said, “Process and being clear about the rules and honoring that process in a transition year when we have lost key staff and personnel and made a lot of changes, that seems to be important.”
She quoted former Superintendent Winfred Roberson, “We move at the speed of trust.”
Ms. Sunder also pointed out the number of students retested using the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test. When challenged as to whether this was on-topic, she stated, “I do not feel that our identification process is complete yet. I believe that there are students that we have not given fair opportunity to see whether or not they actually have gifted potential.”
She believes that the Naglieri, and other new tests they used, have “failed.” She said we need to make sure we are giving fair access to English-Language Learners, low income students, learning disabled students, and racial minorities “that we know are often unfairly disadvantaged on the OLSAT [Otis-Lennon School Ability Test].” She said they retested these groups “and we failed to identify almost any.”
Board Member Susan Lovenburg stated that this is off-topic for this discussion, but added, “I don’t agree that the process that the board put in place is a failure. It functioned as it was intended to and if not, we need to make changes going forward.”
Tom Adams stated, “The use of the TONI [Test of Nonverbal Intelligence] before was not appropriate – it’s a test intended for English Learners (and) we were using it as a second test for a lot of groups for whom it’s really not intended.”
Barbara Archer responded, “I would add, do you know how many African-American third-graders there are? … So if there were two and we identified one, how could you call that a failure?” She added, “I don’t think we have the number to say (it’s a failure).”
Ms. Archer would later add, “I do agree with President Sunder that we have to address this year, but I really object to calling our program a failure when you don’t know the percentages of third graders in the different minority groups.”
Madhavi Sunder said they already have some numbers and “we are three percent African American in this district and the number that is identified is zero percent.” She pointed out that there was only a three percent success rate on the Naglieri and a 32 percent success rate for the CogAT (Cognitive Abilities Test).
“That was the test (CogAT) that we gave to more advantaged students,” she argued. “What upsets me is that we gave the disadvantaged students a much harder to succeed on test.” In the past, they were given the TONI, which had a 14.6 percent success rate. “We didn’t give the TONI to a single low income student this year.”
Where I think the district has a potential problem is that they understood from the preliminary numbers that the racial/ethnic breakdown of the program was far less diverse than the previous one. Yet they did not really take concrete steps to fix it. They had several options including pausing the full implementation, re-examining their use of testing, or some other reevaluation.
But while many may welcome this outside evaluation of the AIM program, some believe that this will lead to the inevitable scrapping of the AIM program altogether. So far, three members of the board and occasionally a fourth have been willing to pare down the program, but they have not been willing to eliminate it.
If they are forced to either change the fundamentals of the new program or scrap it, which approach will they take?
—David M. Greenwald reporting