Fairfax Report Finds Possible Racial Bias
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 10, 2008; A01
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.
The Fairfax initiative, prompted by the board, comes as schools nationwide are pushing to enhance character education, emphasizing the teaching of social and emotional skills. The thinking is that students need more than reading and math skills mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law.
"More districts are finding that just focusing on [test scores] is not getting them there," said Merle Schwartz, director of education and research at the Character Education Partnership, an advocacy group in Washington. "There is something missing. But how to do this systematically and how to measure it? We don't have all the answers yet."
In 2006, after 33 public meetings, the board approved the goals for life skills and sought to define behavior that reflects sound moral character, such as "Model honesty and integrity" and "Respect people, property and authority." School officials, at the board's direction, then hunted for relevant indicators to measure progress and analyzed them.
In some cases, sufficient data were not available to make a meaningful analysis of some goals. Officials said they intend to revise report cards and create surveys for teachers, students and high school graduates to assess life-skills goals.
School Board Chairman Daniel G. Storck (Mount Vernon) emphasized that the analysis is preliminary and acknowledged that the board needs to evaluate whether a race-based analysis is appropriate and helps the board further its goal of helping every child in the school system acquire these skills.
"What we are doing [now] and we are doing three years from now will probably be pretty different," he said.
Schools Superintendent Jack D. Dale said some administrators were "surprised" by the findings that emerged from the analysis. He said looking more deeply into the data could lead to new understanding about social and cultural differences in students, something he views as critical in a system with students from about 200 countries.
Board member Ilryong Moon (At Large), a Korean American, said he was "perplexed" that disparities in measures of character education seemed to echo academic achievement gaps.
Educators typically examine racial and ethnic patterns in academic data to spot problems and direct resources to students who need them most. Members of the NAACP's Fairfax chapter criticized the school system's use of such methods for the character education analysis.
"I don't think you can classify a whole group and say they have lower character or morality," said Janice Winters, a member of the chapter's education committee. "It sends a poor message to the students: 'Oh, I'm black, and they don't expect me to behave.' "
Winters said the school system should take steps to ensure that teachers are unbiased in their assessment of students. "That has been an issue over time," she said.
Some school officials agreed with the importance of teacher training. They said, for example, that there should be a more uniform definition of disruptive behavior.
Moon and some other board members said it is valuable to learn about differences in the way students are being assessed.
"Do we just brush this aside as if it never existed or do we do something constructive?" Moon said.
Moon said he wants school officials to study whether teachers "have a full understanding of whom they teach, and their different learning styles and family backgrounds."
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