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Ohanian Comment: This article is so upsetting, I just can't comment. I'm so angry. The Standardistos are destroying a generation. And the rest of us are standing by, watching and mostly silent.

HANGING OUT IN the Umana/Barnes Middle School gym in East Boston, talking to the seventh- and eighth-graders playing soccer and basketball, it’s hard to imagine that 70 percent of them will not graduate from high school just four or five years from now. They are bright and eager, and insist that they will succeed academically. They are first- and second-generation Hispanics, mostly from Colombia, Honduras, and El Salvador. They speak fluent, if somewhat choppy, English. They want to be scientists, astronauts, musicians, and actresses. They all say they will go to college.

Very few of them will. Most likely these students, like others before them, will bottle up in the ninth grade like water behind a dam; the dam is the 10th grade Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), and schools are holding back Hispanic students who they think aren’t ready for it. Of the 1410 Hispanic ninth-graders enrolled in the Boston Public School system at the end of the 2002-’03 school year, 61 percent (or 864 students) were held back last June, while just 39 percent (or 564 students) were promoted to 10th grade, according to figures compiled exclusively for the Phoenix by the Boston Public Schools. Black ninth-graders were held back at roughly the same rate (60 percent), but not white students (32 percent) or Asian students (23 percent).

Unable to break through to the upper grades, Hispanic students drop out at epidemic rates, in Boston and statewide. According to a report called Losing Our Future, released in February by Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project and the Urban Institute, Massachusetts has the second-worst gap between Hispanic and white graduation rates of any state in the country — behind only New York. Just 36 percent of Hispanic ninth-graders in the Bay State go on to graduate in four years, according to the report, compared with 49 percent of black students and 74 percent of white students. The number is even worse in Boston — just 30 percent of Hispanics entering ninth grade will graduate in four years.

As one "reform" after another sweeps through public education — high-stakes MCAS testing, English immersion, and now, in Boston, possibly some form of neighborhood schooling (see "Bus Stop," News and Features, February 13) — the song remains much the same for Hispanics in the Hub. As they reach age 16 — when they can legally drop out of school — and start facing decisions about jobs and families, young Hispanics see little hope of graduating, and give up. "If they’re 16 as a freshman or a sophomore, they get a sense of futility and throw it all in," says Jim McGrane, who taught at Umana/Barnes for 36 years and now runs the after-school programs at the middle school.

A few hours after the young students leave the building, McGrane watches a different group of learners arrive at the school. They are adults, mostly in their 20s and 30s, and they fill up a hall of classrooms in the evening to learn English or to earn their GEDs. Many of them are parents of Umana/Barnes students; some of them had McGrane as a teacher when they were students at the school. There is a waiting list of more than 200 to get in.

"I see a lot of my former students here in the GED program, and they say, ‘I never should have quit,’" McGrane says. Chances are, that’s what a lot of the hopeful kids now playing in the gym will be saying 10 or so years from now.

GIVEN SUCH long-term consequences, why are so many Hispanic kids falling back at such a critical time in their development? Critics charge that high-school administrators don’t want their Hispanic students — whose proficiency in English is good enough for them to get by in the classroom, but not quite good enough for them to succeed on standardized tests — taking the 10th-grade MCAS. Why? Under mandates set by the state’s 1993 Education Reform Act and 2002’s federal No Child Left Behind act (NCLB), districts and schools have a lot riding on how their students do on the MCAS. If a school does not meet goals for MCAS passing rates, it can be labeled "underperforming" by the state. Failing to meet "adequate yearly progress" goals for average MCAS scores brings a similar designation under the federal law. Punishments include letting parents transfer their children out of the school, thereby transferring state funding out at the same time. Eventually, the school can be put into "restructuring," which can involve wholesale overhaul of the faculty, takeover by a private company, reopening as a charter school, or becoming a state-operated school. And pressure is applied not just to schools but also to personnel, especially school administrators, who are increasingly judged by MCAS results.

"It has everything to do with not being labeled an underperforming high school, and not being labeled failing to make adequate yearly progress," says Roger Rice, executive director of Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy (META), a national minority-education nonprofit based in Somerville.

"There’s a huge incentive to push out students who you expect to fail," says Gary Orfield, co-director of Harvard’s Civil Rights Project, which co-sponsored the study on graduation rates. "The easiest way to show the mandatory improvement is to keep the worst-scoring students from taking the test."

Between 1998 and 2000, the Massachusetts Department of Education made several changes to its 10th-grade-promotion requirements. As a result, it’s no longer enough to have good attendance, participate in class projects, and get passing grades in science and history; the student must now pass standard Unified Science 9 or World History 9 tests, which cover what the state thinks students should know in those subjects. "They have a strict policy now for what tests kids need to pass for promotion," says Steve Fernandez, who teaches 11th and 12th grade at the O’Bryant School, in Boston.

By basing promotion on test-taking, the state inevitably holds back those who — surprise, surprise — do not do well on standardized tests: students with learning disabilities who might excel in every other educational arena, students whose anxieties or difficulty concentrating make tests difficult, and students with less-than-fluent English who have trouble understanding test questions. "I’m not an expert in English, so it’s hard," says one Colombian student at the Umana/Barnes school. "Sometimes we’re afraid of it [the MCAS test], because we don’t understand it [English] as well, so we get nervous," adds a Salvadoran student.

Indeed, December 2003 enrollment figures for the Boston Public Schools show Hispanics being disproportionately held back in the ninth grade. This year’s eighth-grade class, for example, has 1457 Hispanics; the ninth-grade class has 1774, and the 10th-grade class has only 1185. That’s an 18.7 percent drop in class size from eighth to 10th grade. (Note that the numbers for ninth grade shoot up because it’s the "bubble grade," consisting of the previous year’s eighth-graders plus those ninth-graders held back from advancing to 10th grade.)

Compare that with similar statistics for students of other ethnicities who are, presumably, more fluent in English. Black enrollment rises from 2230 in the eighth grade to 2980 in the ninth, and drops back to 2206 in the 10th grade — just a one percent reduction in class size from eighth to 10th grade. For white students the numbers are 781/914/743, reflecting a 4.85 percent drop. And for Asians, the numbers are 421/519/456 — an 8.3 percent gain in class size from the eighth to 10th grades.

EDUCATORS KNOW that when students are held back — sometimes repeatedly — they often end up dropping out of school. "Grade retention is the leading predictor of whether the student drops out," says Daniel Losen, legal and policy research associate for the Civil Rights Project. "Kids leave because they don’t want to hang in there year after year after year," adds Rice.

But dropouts don’t matter to the school district — at least, as far as MCAS and NCLB are concerned. NCLB was supposed to demand improvement in graduation rates as well as test scores, but Secretary of Education Rod Paige — over the objections of several civil-rights groups — dropped that requirement. "I don’t think any school should get off the hook if they have high test scores but only a third of students are graduating," Losen says. But they do. States are required to report graduation rates, but are not judged by them. (Those reports must include graduation rates for subgroups, including Hispanics, but Massachusetts does not yet comply. The state Department of Education says it will do so by 2006.)

Perhaps as a result of this, we’re now seeing subtle — and some not-so-subtle — tactics designed to move students who don’t do well on standardized tests out of the classroom altogether. Last fall, the deputy superintendent of the Boston Public Schools sent a memo to every high-school principal and headmaster in the district, encouraging them to "request that overage students be case managed out of existing placement" — that is, to rid Boston’s public schools of students who are two years behind in course credits for their age. By April, such students will be transferred elsewhere; schools must submit plans showing how "overage students who were allowed to stay in district high school" will be graduated or transferred by next fall.

This initiative can be viewed as an attempt to move low-performing students into settings in which they’ll have a better chance of success, such as those available under Boston’s alternative-high-school diploma program, created in 1999. Here, students with jobs, for instance, might do well at Roxbury’s Boston Evening Academy, which offers "alternative learning culture" with 190 students. Others might want to enter the Adult Secondary Education program, at places like ABCD LearningWorks, in Downtown Boston, or at Bunker Hill Community College, where they can take high-school-level classes or work toward a GED.

But it’s also an easy way to get these students out of district schools, where they threaten to pull down test-score averages, says Rice. Especially when school districts in other states, including Texas and New York, have been caught driving students — particularly Hispanic students — out of their schools with little concern about what happens to them. In New York, a legal challenge forced the city’s schools to take back 5000 Hispanic students who had been sent letters that led them to believe, falsely, they were no longer allowed to attend public school.

Unfortunately, Hispanic parents are often ill-equipped to act as agents for their children’s educational interests, despite their best intentions. According to federal Census data, 42 percent of adult Hispanics statewide have no high-school diploma. In Boston, the rates are even higher. Hispanics in Boston — who now make up 14.4 percent of the city’s general population, up from 10.8 percent in 1990 — are more likely to be newer immigrants from Central and South America. About a third of the state’s Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans live in Boston, and over 70 percent of them are immigrants, according to the Mauricio Gastón Institute at UMass Boston, a leading research center for Hispanic and immigrant issues. Parents from such backgrounds tend to have less education and speak less English at home than third- and fourth-generation Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Cubans, who can be found increasingly outside Boston in places like Brockton, Lowell, Salem, Somerville, and Waltham — and even New Hampshire, where the Puerto Rican population doubled from 1990 to 2000.

Hispanic parents bring other cultural differences to the table that leave them ill-equipped to work the system on behalf of their children. "The culture in Latin America says that you trust the teacher," says at-large city councilor Felix Arroyo, who is a former president of the Boston School Committee. "You transfer that attitude to a very different culture where you have to advocate for your child, and they end up without the services they have a right to."

Besides, Rice charges, the Boston school district has a history of ignoring the Hispanic graduation-rate problem, in large part by placing the onus on parents. "Given the choice of really educating parents about the options available to them, or just rolling over, it’s a lot easier for the district to roll over and do nothing," he says. Rice points to the new English-immersion law as an example, charging that Boston stopped providing help for its older limited-English students, rather than offering the transition required by statute. "In theory, at the high-school level [limited-English students] could still be getting native-language instruction if they request it," Rice says. "But BPS didn’t do a good job telling the parents that, so it’s all English instruction now."

Such neglect goes back for years. In November 1989, the BPS adopted — on paper — a Hispanic dropout-prevention program, with a list of prevention and intervention strategies. But "it was dead on arrival," Rice says.

"I am angry about it, because they know what to do and they won’t do it," says Arroyo, who agrees that the 1989 program — among others — was never implemented.

The prevention strategies outlined in that program started in preschool. They included outreach activities to bring Hispanic children into early-learning programs, and research designed to purchase preschool curriculum materials designed for that population. Tutorial support, staff-development efforts, and targeted curriculum materials were recommended for the earliest grade levels, and at-risk students were to be identified by the third grade.

Intervention strategies included an ambitious mentoring program for Hispanic students in grades six through nine; a cultural-awareness program throughout the Boston Public Schools; a professional-development plan for all BPS principals and headmasters; collaboration with community agencies to provide services to parents (including job training, counseling, child care, and transportation); and family-support teams for at-risk students.

Instead, the biggest reform under consideration in the Boston Public Schools these days is a push to change the school-assignment policy. Increasing the number of school zones in the city from three to nine, as some are now discussing, would inevitably lead to more segregated schools. As it stands now, at many public elementary and middle schools in Boston — including Winship Elementary in Brighton, Tobin Elementary and Middle in Roxbury, Curley Middle in Jamaica Plain, and Otis Elementary in East Boston — Hispanic pupils account for 60 percent or more of the total students.

The Civil Rights Project study found that, regardless of the district’s entire racial and socioeconomic make-up, the more a district’s students are clustered into schools by race and ethnicity — the "segregation index" — the worse the graduation rate. "Independent of poverty, racial isolation contributes to lower graduation rates," says Losen. And as far as Orfield is concerned, "Neighborhood schools will make it worse." Changes to busing, such as increasing the number of zones within which students can be moved, will tend to increase the segregation index, he says.

All of which means that a few years from now, the city may look back on the 30 percent graduation rate for its Hispanic students as — believe it or not — the high-water mark.

David S. Bernstein can be reached at dbernstein@phx.com

— David S. Berstein
Boston Phoenix





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