Fairfax County must do more to lift the lagging academic achievement of its minority students, according to a report by a School Board advisory panel that urges expanding programs and improving assessments of how well they work.
In a report to be delivered to the School Board tonight, the Human Relations Advisory Committee goes beyond the topics on which it was asked to comment and reports that minority parents, students and teachers have major concerns about the county's commitment to making changes.
The report is the first major evaluation by a group outside the school system on the School Board's two-year-old effort to raise the test scores, grades and ambitions of minority students to the level of white students. Hispanics, blacks, Asians, Pacific Islanders, American Indians and Alaskan natives account for 20 percent of the county's 125,000 students.
"The county can and should do more," said Donald G. Murphy, chairman of the 33-member committee, which included representatives of civic groups and residents of each school district. "It's not always in money issues, but in approach, as well."
The county is spending $373,000 on special programs for minority students this year and an additional $1.5 million for extra staffing at 22 elementary schools that have large numbers of minority, foreign-born, transient and low-income students.
The report said minority parents, teachers and students have major concerns that improvements are hampered by ineffective teaching techniques, student grouping that perpetuates below-average performance, and a lack of commitment to the principle that all students can succeed academically.
The committee did not necessarily agree with those conclusions, Murphy said, but "we take them seriously enough to pass them on to the School Board."
Committee member Barbara Banks said that one "very, very major concern" of parents is that minority students often are routinely promoted without being expected to do the academic work at their grade level.
One of the committee's recommendations is that good programs should be implemented throughout the school system, rather than leaving the decision up to individual principals. The county's effort now is "only as good or bad as each principal makes it," Banks said.
The committee's second major proposal was for standardized tests to be given annually, rather than every few years, so the school system will know which programs are effective. Murphy said that "things need to be evaluated better" so the school system can be judged.
School Board Chairman Mary E. Collier praised the report yesterday, saying that "a lot of creative ideas and a lot of thinking obviously went into it." As for the report's criticisms, she said: "It's always helpful to have people suggest ways in which we can improve."
Collier said that she especially liked the committee's suggestions for involving more minority parents in school activities and setting up a big brother-big sister program for new minority students at every grade level.
But she expressed doubts about annual standardized testing, because those examinations are not tailored to the county curriculum, and she said that the county is committed to letting each school develop its own minority achievement plan, although there is room for county-wide ideas.
The committee devoted three pages -- fully one-fourth of its report -- to suggestions for involving more minority parents in school activities.
Among the committee's recommendations were scheduling parent-teacher conferences at times that would enable working parents to attend, avoiding educational jargon, translating or interpreting for foreign-speaking parents, paying for baby sitters during school functions, and holding meetings in low-income neighborhoods so that parents who do not have cars can attend.