PURE lodges federal complaint on student retention

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Parents United for Responsible Education has filed a discrimination complaint against the Board of Education with the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education. The complaint alleges that the board’s promotion policy discriminates against African-American, Latino and male students, and calls the waiver process “arbitrary and capricious.”

“What would be discriminatory is promoting children who are only prepared for failure at the next grade level,” responds Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas in a press statement. “The elimination of social promotion and the use of standardized tests to determine promotion have become a national model for education.”

PURE cites two recent national reports as the basis for its action: a report on high-stakes testing by the National Research Council and a guidebook on ending social promotion published by the U.S. Department of Education.

“The education people are horrified by what Chicago is doing,” contends Julie Woestehoff, executive director of PURE. She describes the recent publications as “almost an open invitation for somebody” to file a complaint with the department.

In 3rd, 6th and 8th grades, the board has set minimum scores that students must meet on the reading and math sections of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) in order to be promoted. The board gives waivers, PURE says, on the basis of other factors but only to students who have met other, lower minimum scores.

The National Research Council report repeatedly cites Chicago as an example of questionable use of test scores in promoting and retaining students.

The Department of Education guidebook advises against making a single test the sole criterion for promotion and lays out federal legal and civil rights provisions educators must follow in developing high-stakes testing. The key provisions PURE alleges CPS has violated are: (1) professionally acceptable evidence of test validity and reliability for the purpose, (2) consideration for the effects of disparate impact on different genders or racial groups, and (3) equal opportunity for students with limited English.

PURE cites transition center enrollment as evidence that the promotion policy has had disparate impact on students by race. According to the CPS annual racial ethnic survey, total enrollment in 1997-98 was 53.7 percent African-American, 32.6 percent Latino, and 10.3 percent white. According to CPS, transition center enrollment the same year was 71.4 percent African- American, 25.4 percent Latino and 2.6 percent white.

“I think the bottom line is we feel very confident the policy would withstand scrutiny and that the waiver is evenly and fairly administered,” says Marilyn Johnson, CPS general counsel. “We very much view PURE filing this complaint as an opportunity to have some dialogue with the Office of Civil Rights.

“If there’s anything in the nature of tinkering that needs to be done to bring this to the penultimate of fairness, we’re willing to have those discussions.”

Parents Janet Edmond and Leonardo Chavez also filed individual complaints on behalf of their children. In her complaint, Edmond says her son, Millord Daniels, now an 11-year-old 4th-grader, was retained once in 1st grade and twice, based on test scores, in 3rd grade.

In his complaint, Chavez says his 14-year-old daughter, Dulce, was prevented from graduating with her classmates last June when she missed the 8th-grade reading cutoff score by two-tenths of a point. She was permitted to retest before summer school and graduated. The complaint alleges that other students with the same reading score were permitted to graduate with their class.

Rodger Murphey, spokesperson for the Office of Civil Rights, says two similar complaints have been made against the states of North Carolina and Nevada. They are currently being evaluated, so Murphey declined further comment.

The OCR case resolution manual suggests a target date of 30 days after filing for completing evaluation of a complaint, but adds, “many complaints will be evaluated in fewer days; some may require additional time.” PURE filed the complaint Oct. 21.

After a complaint has been evaluated, the office notifies the complainant about whether it will take action. If so, the office also contacts the recipient and begins negotiation. Enforcement in the courts is considered a last resort.