Fairfax Postpones Vote About Student Behavior Study

Michael Alison Chandler, Washington Post, April 11, 2008

The Fairfax County School Board voted unanimously last night to postpone a decision on whether to accept a school system report that showed racial and ethnic gaps in certain measures of achievement in character education.

Debate on the report, which has emerged as a sensitive matter for the region’s largest school system, dealt in part with possible biases in its underlying data and in its presentation. Several board members said they supported delaying a vote on acceptance of the report so they could spend more time discussing it.

Several board members said beforehand that they had too many questions about the report. Among the issues they raised: whether assessments of student behavior and moral character are biased and whether sifting such data by race, ethnicity and other factors will help or hinder the school system’s efforts to promote effective character education.

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Hone said board members and staff need to look at ways to present the information without “the unintended consequences of showing numbers that would have the effect of demoralizing children or feeding into negative stereotypes.”

School systems are required to break down academic data by race and ethnicity under the federal No Child Left Behind law, but it is less common to analyze data about student behavior or morality the same way. Fairfax school officials are trying to chart new territory by developing assessments for non-academic life skills the board considers “essential” to success for the current workforce.

Initial attempts to measure progress yielded results that many school officials found surprising. The report, presented March 27, detailed a disparity in a category of achievement for demonstration of moral character and ethical judgment: 82 percent of African American third-grade students, 83 percent of special education students and 86 percent of Hispanic students received “good” or “outstanding” marks on certain related indicators on their elementary school report card compared with 95 percent of Asian American and white students.

The report card indicators cited included “accepts responsibility,” “listens to and follows direction,” “respects personal and school property,” “complies with established rules” and “follows through on assignments.”

The analysis also found gaps among groups of students in other skills, including being able to contribute effectively in a group, resolve conflicts and make healthy choices.

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“The message that seems to be out there, that some people’s morals are better than others, that’s not where we wanted to go with this report,” said board member Kathy L. Smith (Sully). The board’s goal, she said, was to “ensure that kids have the skill sets they need to be successful.”

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[Editor’s Note: Earlier stories on this report can be found starting here.]

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