Two years ago, one of the key moments of the Nancy Peterson saga was the revelation that the district spent $22,000 investigating her complaint against volleyball coach Julie Crawford. The amount of resources wasted on a petty dispute between the school board member and coach over volleyball was widely seen as wasteful in a school district short on funds.
The dynamics of the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) investigation are a bit different, of course, but the fact that the district has already spent $17,000 on legal fees responding to the complaint should be troubling to the community.
Here’s the problem as I see it…
Last fall, after a lot of community strife, the school board more or less agreed on a new policy involving the AIM program. In so doing, it got rid of private testing (something most everyone agreed on). It changed the testing and retesting protocols. It created more risk factors. And then it phased in the raising of the scores needed to qualify.
From the start, the Vanguard was concerned about the diversity of the program and whether raising the bar and changing the protocol would make the program less diverse. This has been a concern from the start because, if we are going to having a program that seeks to identify those students who are “gifted,” we need to figure out ways to identify those students from disadvantaged backgrounds who fit this category.
Instead, our worst fears were realized this spring when it became clear that the new protocol identified far fewer black and Hispanic students than the previous one did. The program become much more heavily white, and especially Asian, than the previous one.
The problem that the school district and, in particular, the school board had was that they knew in the spring this was a problem – that the new testing protocol was only identifying one black and four Hispanic students for the program, in a district where those students represent one-quarter of the overall population – and they essentially did nothing to address it.
At the time we felt this lack of action left the district open to a potential civil rights lawsuit, and the OCR investigation may well take the decision making outside of the hands of the school board here. Some people have wanted to put this on the complainant, but the district could have paused their process, they could have and should have reevaluated the testing matrix.
The problem the district has is that, with better research, they have realized the battery of tests they offered was doomed not to produce the type of diversity they had previously.
Back in April, Board President Madhavi Sunder offered critical statistics that suggested that the use of the Naglieri test was inappropriate.
She stated that “we (have) 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 (Test of Nonverbal Intelligence) which had a 14.6 percent success rate. “We didn’t give the TONI to a single low income student this year.”
Under the new guidelines, for students with risk factors related to language or culture, the TONI may be administered. For students with economic risk factors, the Naglieri may be administered. On the other hand, the CogAT is administered for those who scored in the standard error of measure on the OLSAT (Otis-Lennon School Ability Test).
But does this make sense? In the fall of 2012, the New York City School District overhauled their gifted program, announcing that “the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test, also known as the NNAT, will count for two-thirds of a student’s score.” A year later they altered that to 50-50, NNAT and OLSAT.
The problem that NYC was trying to fix is the same problem we face – the over-representation of white and Asian students in gifted programs, with the underrepresentation of blacks and Hispanics.
Writes Slate in an article this year, “In New York City elementary schools, according to a local newspaper, G&T programs are approximately 70 percent white and Asian while the public school population is 70 percent black and Hispanic. In 2012, New York revamped the test, partially in an effort to make it more inclusive, but so far enrollment statistics have hardly budged.”
In other words, the Naglieri failed to change the demographic distribution of students identified for gifted classes in New York. So why would we expect this to be the appropriate test in Davis?
Davis actually did worse than New York, as they took a program that was fairly representative of the ethnic breakdown and made it far less so.
I am also troubled by the lack of comment by board members on this. It is true the district itself offered comment and response to the Vanguard’s inquiry, but, at the end of the day, it was the school board that made the decision in April to proceed with current plans – despite evidence the plan was not identifying the diverse population they had hoped.
And yet, you have Board Member Susan Lovenburg, who is up for election this year, and in many ways the architect of this new program, declining comment. Alan Fernandes did not even respond to the Vanguard’s email. Even Madhavi Sunder, a fierce critic of the new policy, declined comment.
Here we have an election year, a new and controversial policy, a federal civil rights investigation, and no comment from any elected board member on the growing costs for this new policy.
—David M. Greenwald reporting