Disparity, rich and poor

The Education Beat

Lawsuit: If the American Civil Liberties Union succeeds in a California legal action challenging the lack of demanding courses in low-income high schools, Maryland could be affected.

August 04, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

A CALIFORNIA lawsuit has challenged for the first time the lack of demanding courses in predominantly minority, low-income high schools. If the suit succeeds, look out, Maryland.

The last week in July, the American Civil Liberties Union and attorney Johnnie Cochran filed a class action suit in Los Angeles claiming that rich schools unconstitutionally offer more Advanced Placement (AP) courses than poor schools do. The disparity, the ACLU said, gives wealthier kids a leg up in college admissions.

Taking Advanced Placement courses and passing AP examinations earn students lucrative scholarships with advanced credit in colleges and universities.

The lack of such courses in systems such as Baltimore City and Somerset County no doubt is a factor in the sparse enrollment of African-Americans in academically challenging college courses, particularly in the crucial fields of mathematics and science.

In Maryland, the disparities are glaring. In the 1997-1998 school year, 289 Advanced Placement examinations were taken in Baltimore, 6,118 in Montgomery County.

The problem in Baltimore is compounded by a shortage of instructors capable of teaching the courses, and a growing teacher shortage will make matters worse.

All of this occurs months after the U.S. Department of Education reported that the courses a student takes in high school are better predictors of college success than test scores, grades or class rank.

Overlapping tests needed to rate different skills

If pupils score equally well on the tests of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) and those of the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS), we asked at the conclusion of Sunday's Education Beat, why do we need to spend $1.9 million a year to make the CTBS mandatory statewide for second-, fourth- and sixth-graders? (MSPAP is administered in grades three, five and eight.)

The answer came quickly from state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and testing chief Mark Moody: The tests judge things differently -- halfway differently.

Research shows that in reading, "there's a 51 percent overlap between what the two tests measure," Moody said. Because MSPAP is given only in Maryland and CTBS is a national test, "this confirms that we're on the right track with our curriculum," Moody said.

As for the 49 percent that doesn't overlap, "MSPAP tells us about higher-order skills, while CTBS tells us more about basic skills," he said.

CTBS allows comparisons because it shows how Marylanders perform against their peers nationally, Moody said, while MSPAP results can't be compared to those of any other state.

Grasmick heads off a battle over `sexual orientation'

Credit Nancy Grasmick (who's off on an Ireland vacation) with deftly heading off an ugly battle.

At a routine State Board of Education meeting last week, the superintendent abruptly managed the withdrawal of a proposed regulation that had sparked intense opposition from Christian conservatives and other anti-gay rights groups.

The regulation -- proposed in May to modify the "education that is multicultural" portion of state education regulations -- called for the instruction programs in all schools to "promote a school climate where all students in Maryland, regardless of but not limited to race, ethnicity, region, religion, gender, sexual orientation, language, socio-economic status, age and disability, are assured educational environments that are safe, optimal for academic achievement and free from harassment."

It was the "sexual orientation" wording that caused the controversy.

At last week's meeting, the list of speakers during the public comment period was filled with people who opposed state recognition of what they described as a "deviant lifestyle." One therapist who said he is an expert at turning homosexuals into heterosexuals offered his services.

But before the opponents got a chance to speak, Grasmick had taken care of the issue. Saying the proposal should not fall under the state's regulations for instruction -- and that it was too limiting by not offering protection for students who might be harassed for weight or height -- she persuaded the board to withdraw it.

One of the protesting groups, Citizens for Parents Rights, immediately claimed victory for those "with their faith in the Lord."

However, Grasmick made it clear that a new regulation titled "School Safety" applies to sexual orientation, although it doesn't say so explicitly.

"All students in Maryland's public schools, without exception," it says, "have the right to educational environments that are safe, optimal for academic achievement and free from any form of harassment."

Not a peep of objection.

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