Behavioral Study on Students Stirs Debate

Michael Alison Chandler, Washington Post, April 10, 2008

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The [Fairfax] 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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.'”

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[Editor’s Note: Last week’s news story on the character study can be read here.]

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