Diversity Has Its Downside In Tests

Patti Ghezzi, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 16, 2006

Parents seeking a high school with a track record of sending kids to top colleges and an environment resembling real-world diversity often end up at Lakeside.

The DeKalb County school’s 1,092 SAT average exceeds the national average, and a national magazine recognized the school as second in the state for the percentage of kids in Advanced Placement courses. Click on the school’s report card on the state Department of Education’s Web site and a starburst appears with the proclamation: “Bronze Award: Highest percentage of students meeting and exceeding standards.”

About half the school’s students are white, and a quarter are African-American. About 13 percent are Hispanic, and 9 percent are Asian—diversity you won’t find in many of metro Atlanta’s other highly regarded high schools.

But now Lakeside has a new distinction. The school did not meet state testing goals under the federal No Child Left Behind law. And it was the diversity Lakeside touts that kept it from doing so.

The law measures not only how well a school’s students perform overall, but also the test scores of its subgroups—Latinos, African-Americans, English language learners, students with disabilities and those from poor families. If one group fails to meet the state standard, the whole school takes the fall.

That gives schools with largely homogenous student populations an advantage. For example, Southside High School in Atlanta has an SAT average of 812, but the school met the state’s testing goals. (Southside also got a state “gold award” for improving passing rates on state tests.) Almost all the school’s students are African-American, and most are economically disadvantaged, so it had fewer subgroups to contend with. Southside passed.

Overall, Lakeside students easily met state standards. But Lakeside’s Latino students and its students deemed “economically disadvantaged” because they participate in the federal free lunch program fell short in English language arts.

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If Lakeside falls short again next year, it will get labeled “needs improvement” and have to offer students the option of transferring to another DeKalb County high school.

System fair or flawed?

Some say the labeling of Lakeside shows that No Child Left Behind is doing exactly as intended. The law is forcing schools to teach all its students and not just ride on the success of the kids with the most advantages.

“To be a top-tier school, Lakeside certainly needs to serve every child,” said Pam Mason-Norsworthy, who has

children at Lakeside and its feeder school, Henderson Middle, which also didn’t meet the No Child Left Behind standard, known as adequate yearly progress, or AYP.

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More parents are learning about the law as more schools accustomed to accolades get caught in the No Child Left Behind net.

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Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and policy at the University of California, Berkeley, co-wrote a 2003 policy brief about what he calls the “diversity penalty.” He said it’s “sadly ironic” that metro Atlanta schools that have tried so hard to integrate and convince middle-class families not to eschew their schools for private academies or mostly white suburban schools now face the possibility of parents moving because they see only the “needs improvement” label.

“[No Child Left Behind] inadvertently works against the move toward integration,” Fuller said.

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