LYNN NEARY, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. Test scores were released last week from academic achievement tests taken at a Northern California high school. Before announcing the results to the students, the principal at Mount Diablo High separated them into ethnic groups. She claimed this was to keep students from harassing each other over differences in the scores of different racial groups. As Lonny Shavelson reports, this policy is stirring up heated debate on campus and in the community.
Unidentified Male #1: I went to the Filipino assembly.
Unidentified Male #2: I went to the Caucasian one.
Ms. ARISELI VALENZUELA(ph) (Student): I went to the Latin one.
Unidentified Male #3: I'm black and then I'm white and they said to pick one.
SHAVELSON: Students Thadon Hailey(ph), Ariseli Valenzuela and Nick Cam(ph) had a range of opinions about separated assemblies.
Unidentified Male #4: I think it was good so that we can see like how our own group is doing and try to improve.
Ms. VALENZUELA: A lot of cultures learn the same way, so we can probably understand each other easier.
Unidentified Male #5: I think it feels kind of racist.
SHAVELSON: Mount Diablo High School in the Bay Area suburb of Concord is the most ethnically diverse, impoverished and low scoring of six in the district. Principal Bev Hansen frets about the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which says no racial group can be left behind. At Diablo, Asians score highest, whites next, African Americans and Latinos last. So Hansen made a decision about how to respond.
Ms. BEV HANSEN (Principal, Mount Diablo High School): I didn't decide to separate anybody by ethnicity and race. The state reports its scores to us that way. And so it was our decision a year ago to really look closely at the data, to include our students in a review of that data, and the safest, most thoughtful way to do it was indeed to do it by subgroups.
SHAVELSON: Hansen asked each student to self-identify as one ethnicity and attend only that group's assembly to hear about test scores, get pep talks from their own community leaders, and connect as a group to work together. That decision brought down a firestorm of criticism from the community. Some questioned the legality of the assemblies. Professor Jesse Choper, who teaches constitution law at the University of California at Berkeley, says he's not so sure that because the state separates grades based on ethnicity the principal can separate students.
Professor JESSE CHOPER (University of California, Berkeley): The motivation here was by no means ugly. They thought they were doing the right thing for all. That doesn't make it right. But I think it's a close question.
SHAVELSON: The question isn't a legal one for Berkeley's education professor Jabari Mahiri. He says the separate assemblies contradict schools' core goals.
Professor JABARI MAHIRI (University of California, Berkeley): One of the biggest struggles in schools that have diverse populations is to create a sense of community, and no matter, you know, what kind of group you're coming from, the things that contribute to high achievement are going to be the same, doing your homework, taking notes in classes, developing your writing skills. None of this is racially defined.
SHAVELSON: Mahiri says he's willing to cut Hansen some slack in how she confronts the complexities of multi-ethnic teaching. But Ward Connerly, the political activist whose proposition ended affirmative action at California universities, says there's never a reason for separate assemblies.
Mr. WARD CONNERLY (Political Activist): Get beyond race. And you don't get beyond race, you don't purge it out of the body politic by dividing these kids into these separate groups.
SHAVELSON: All of this commotion puzzles Hansen. She held similar assemblies last year after every ethnic group, including Asians and whites, failed the exams. She says scores on this year's tests were still below passing, but rose for everyone. On a thousand point exam, Hispanics were up 50 points, whites 46, African Americans 61. So Hansen says the fuss about the separate assemblies is a smokescreen for the real problem.
Ms. HANSEN: Too many of our children of color are not succeeding. They're dropping out of the school. That's what this principal's upset about. I think this is a difficult conversation for this country to have. And that's the real issue that we addressed, and I would do it again.
SHAVELSON: If Congress renews No Child Left Behind this year, with its testing and ethnic reporting of scores, principal Hansen may just get her chance to show if separate attention to ethnic groups in separate assemblies might raise their scores again. For NPR News, I'm Lonny Shavelson.
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