Opinions: Educational system has dangerous potential for racism
ASU WebDevil
April 22, 2008

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 by Daniel Wallace

According to the Associated Press, an elementary school in Rio Linda, Calif. (near Sacramento) has issued an apology on behalf of its principal, Jana Fields, who recently "summoned black students to a meeting to urge them to improve their test scores."

Additionally, a "meeting that Fields planned to have with Hispanic students to discuss their test scores has been canceled."

This madness, in my opinion, is not likely the result of some deep-rooted, underlying racist leanings on the part of Ms. Fields.

I think her actions, while undeniably shortsighted and seemingly ugly, were probably the logical and absurd result of her environment.

The current educational system in this country gages failure, progress and success based on standardized tests. These tests are how schools are weighed, measured, compared and ranked in calculable, numerical terms by those with the power of the purse.

These tests are important. They are not perfect, but they can be a valuable tool in assessing achievement in particular subjects. They can help legislative bodies better allocate funds where they are most needed. They can help school administrators emphasize particular areas that need improvement. They can motivate teachers and students.

One problem with standardized testing as it currently exists, however, is that students are lumped into groups by race, and schools with underperforming racial groups are pressured to raise group scores.

This is a well-intentioned system, and it is very important that all students, regardless of race, are pushed to achieve academic success.

Yet, while on the "macro" level the system's intent seems to be the important goal of closing racial achievement gaps, at the level of individual schools and students, the system has the potential to push for decidedly discriminatory action on the basis of race.

Enter Principal Jana Fields.

Ms. Fields' error here seems to have been that she viewed her own students as those above her do in groups based on race. The difference, of course, is that she physically gathered a group of students together by race while readers of standardized test scores only gather the same racial group together in the abstract. She physically asked this group of students to do exactly what she is likely being pressured to get them to do.

We easily recognize her actions as thoughtless and possibly racist, but ignore the cause that probably led to this effect.

Principal Fields' actions here were obviously offensive, but it is important to question her motives. It seems that, at this point, the school she runs (and she as its leader) will be seen as a success or failure based on the progress of its black and Hispanic students on standardized tests.

This doesn't sit right with me.

What about the underperforming students of other races?

The sad reality is probably that Fields does not have to be too concerned with students who fail standardized tests if they happen to belong to a racial group that is performing well overall.

If a black student and a white student on Principal Fields' watch get the same failing score on the same standardized test, it seems from her actions that she will care more about the black student.

This is discrimination based on race. Any student who underperforms should be pressured equally to raise their scores.

We need to get past all of this to the place where we discriminate against students on the basis of what they accomplish, not by what color their skin happens to be.

In the absence of a better system, it is currently the responsibility of people who hold leadership positions in public schools (like Fields) to resist any pressure pushing them to concern themselves with the achievement of one racial group over that of another.

Even if everyone around her sees only groups and statistics, she should recognize individual students who are all equally human and deserve her utmost concern.

Daniel is an English-literature senior. E-mail him at: daniel.d.wallace@asu.edu.