Interesting social experiment. Is this racial or racist? How else could this sense of solidarity be accomplished particularly in light of the value of diversity? It's also too bad that it's all caught up with test scores, too. Race is the national obsession but could this have been handled in a better way?
Sacramento-area schools use race-based assemblies to push standardized tests
PUBLISHED WEDNESDAY, APR. 22, 2009
The bleachers in the Laguna Creek High School gym were filled earlier this week with students gazing at an outline of Africa on a big screen.
Almost all of them were African American, called together for one of five "Heritage Assemblies" high school administrators organized to pump up kids for STAR testing this week.
"Last year we scored the highest percentage increase of any group," Vice Principal Hasan Abdulmalik hollered at the crowd.
Most students cheered back in response, but a handful were unhappy they'd been divided along racial lines. And so are some parents.
Students at Laguna could go to any rally they wanted, but the gatherings were designated for specific races – African Americans in the gym, Pacific Islanders in the theater, Latinos in the multipurpose room.
Laguna Creek Principal Doug Craig said dividing the students by race allowed staff to talk about test scores without making any one ethnic group feel singled out in a negative manner.
"Is it racist? I don't believe it is," Craig said.
Schools are under increasing pressure to help students do well on "Standardized Testing and Reporting." It's actually a battery of tests that gauge how well schools are teaching their students collectively and in subsets that include race and special needs.
If a school falls short of federal benchmarks for more than two years, it could face sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind Act and ultimately can be taken over by the state.
"No Child Left Behind is a double-edged sword," said Craig. "We're doing things as a school that we never had to do. We're being held accountable."
California schools are required to make huge increases on test scores over the next four years, a reality that has some schools and their districts feeling desperate.
"There is a lot of pressure from the high-stakes testing going on," said Elk Grove Superintendent Steven Ladd.
He said the pressure is increased because there is little incentive for students to take the test and schools are required to have at least 95 percent of students participate.
But the pressure is no excuse, some families say.
Tracy and Herbert Houston said they were angry when their son Kyle was asked to pick an assembly based on race. The mixed-race couple have taught their children that skin color doesn't matter.
"My son texted me and asked me which one to go to," said Tracy Houston. "He didn't know where to go because I've never raised him to be black or white. … I tell my children they are part of the human race."
Laguna Creek ninth-grader Kevion Claiborne attended the African American assembly Monday; he wasn't happy about the groupings.
"We should all go together," he said. "It doesn't matter if you are black, white or any race."
Senior Camille Watts, who headed up the student presentation at the rally, said separate assemblies make sense because the tests measure and compare the students based on race.
"It ultimately sends the wrong message," said Sharroky Hollie, a professor of teacher education at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and the owner of the Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning in Inglewood. "The intent is important, but there are many other ways you can do that and have everybody in the same room."
He said the practice, however, is becoming more common up and down the state.
"I think schools are trying really hard, but not having success," Sharkey said. "But they are not addressing the students' culture instructionally, instead waiting until two weeks before the test and doing heritage rallies."
Laguna Creek isn't the only school in Elk Grove Unified to hold race-specific STAR assemblies. Florin High School and James Rutter Middle School are doing it.
Monterey Trail High School held STAR assemblies based on ethnicity last year, but students this year asked administrators to divide them by grade level instead, said Elizabeth Graswich, district spokeswoman.
Most schools in the region hold rallies or assemblies to motivate students before they take the tests. And most are offering incentives for high scores.
Students at Arlington Heights Elementary School in San Juan Unified School District are celebrating Sweet Success Week this week – five days of motivating activities leading up to STAR testing.
"When our testing schedule is finished, we reward ourselves with a whole school ice cream party," said third-grade teacher Lynne Sharpe via e-mail.
Folsom Cordova Unified School District just took delivery on passes to the Esquire Imax Theater, some of which will be used as incentives for students on STAR testing, said Stephen Nichols, spokesman for the district.
Laguna Creek isn't limiting its efforts to assemblies either. Staff members are offering "STAR Cards" that earn high-scoring students homework passes or an extra point on a test, among other things. The school also has a fall barbecue for the class with the biggest improvement in scores.
Call The Bee's Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090.