Behavioral Study on Students Stirs Debate
Thursday, April 10, 2008
For public schools in the No Child Left Behind era, it has become routine to analyze test scores and other academic indicators by race and ethnicity. But the Fairfax County School Board, to promote character education, has discovered the pitfalls of applying the same analytical techniques to measures of student behavior, especially when the findings imply disparities in behavior among racial, ethnic and other groups.
The county School Board, which oversees one of the country's largest and most diverse suburban school systems, is scheduled to vote tonight on whether to accept a staff report that concludes, in part, that black and Hispanic students and special education students received lower marks than white and Asian American students for demonstration of "sound moral character and ethical judgment."
Such findings have prompted a debate on the potential bias in how teachers evaluate student behavior and how the school system analyzes and presents information about race. Board member Martina A. "Tina" Hone (At Large), who is African American, called the school system's decision to break down data by race "potentially damaging and hurtful."
The report on student achievement under "Essential Life Skills," first presented to the board March 27, quantifies the moral-ethical gap this way: "Grade 3 students who received 'Good' or better ranged from a low near 80 percent . . . for Black and Special Education students, to about 95 percent . . . for Asian and White students." The report also indicated that Hispanic third-graders scored 86 percent on the measure.
The findings on third-grade morality reflected the number of elementary students who received "good" or "outstanding" marks on report cards in such areas as "accepts responsibility," "listens to and follows directions," "respects personal and school property," "complies with established rules" and "follows through on assignments." Such categories, which draw mainly on teacher observations, are common.
For older students, the report's findings on moral character were based on the number of state-reported disciplinary infractions, a measure where minority students tend to be overrepresented. Disparities among groups were found, however, to be slimmer for eighth-graders and negligible for 12th-graders.
The analysis also reported gaps among groups of students in skills such as being able to "contribute effectively within a group dynamic," resolve conflicts and make healthy life choices.
School officials said they were seeking to broaden the definition of student achievement and devise new ways to measure progress toward key goals to prepare a 21st-century workforce.
Officials acknowledge that their initial findings are not conclusive. Hone intends to propose that a vote on the report be delayed until the School Board and staff members have had time to discuss the merits of data analysis according to race.
"We have to be very, very careful about [how] the story is being told and have all kinds of asterisks and footnotes, and say, 'We recognize that some of this might not be the child's fault,' " Hone said at the March 27 meeting.
In an interview later she said, "There is a fundamental difference between looking at race vis-a-vis the achievement gap in academics, where you have hard data," and gaps in areas subject to possible teacher bias.
The Fairfax school system is the region's largest, with more than 165,700 students. About 48 percent are white, 11 percent black, 17 percent Hispanic and 18 percent Asian American, and 6 percent are listed as other or unspecified. Two of the board's 12 members belong to racial or ethnic minorities.