Guest Column: HISD's Ethnic Gap

Stats show how district policies help whites with educational opportunities

Ethnicity can make a difference in your opportunities for success in the Houston Independent School District. If you are white, you are more than likely going to score 250 points or more on the Scholastic Aptitude Test than most African-American or Hispanic students. Higher scores on the SAT bring letters of acceptance and financial aid from colleges and universities. In HISD's class of 2003, the average SAT for white students was 1133; for Hispanics, it was 865, and for African-Americans 858.

The exit-level examination required to graduate from high school is more proof of the disparities. As a white student in HISD in 2004, you were more likely to pass that test (86 percent of the whites had passing grades on all five parts of the test) than Hispanics (54 percent) and African-Americans (57 percent).

As a white student, you are more likely to be enrolled in an exemplary school -- 20 of 25 HISD schools rated exemplary in 2003 had predominantly white students. Also, if you are in a school with a large percentage of white students, you most likely will be in a classroom designated for gifted and talented students.

White HISD students on the average score higher on the SAT and exit-level tests (TAKS) than 91 percent of all other students, who represent minorities. Educators have been researching the causes behind the achievement gap and why it has not changed since the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling in 1954. Perhaps it's time to review some policies on how white students are treated differently in HISD.

Schools with a high white population of students have a much higher percentage of students in the gifted and talented programs than schools with large African-American or Hispanic enrollments. Westside High School had a whopping 47 percent of its enrollment in 2001 classified as gifted and talented. T.H. Rogers has 76 percent of its students in gifted and talented programs. Many of the schools with a white population of more than 20 percent have more than 20 percent of the student body enrolled in those programs.

While whites make up only 9 percent of HISD students, they represent 37 percent of all students in Vanguard Program, a gifted and talented program. White students also represent more than 40 percent of all students in advance-placement courses.

Schools with Hispanic or African-American majorities sometimes have a very small percentage of students in gifted and talented programs. Lee High School, predominantly Hispanic, only has 3 percent of its students classified as gifted and talented. District-wide, only 9 percent of students are classified as gifted and talented.

Texas Education Agency guidelines state that special financing will be given to only 5 percent of a school's enrollment in the gifted and talented program. HISD states in a report that its focus is to "serve the top 5 percent of each campus with a differentiated curriculum." Yet, there are many schools in HISD with 10 to 70 percent of students classified as gifted and talented.

A TEA audit in 2002 found that HISD's gifted and talented program "was in noncompliance with regard to eight of the state's indicators…" One of those was how it selected students for that program, and another was for its lack of diversity in the program.

Visitors to school campuses with a high percentage of white students often comment that in most gifted and talented classrooms there are few students of color. Minority students in the program tend to be from middle-class families, especially if they are in a predominantly white school. More than 81 percent of HISD students are classified as eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, meaning they are low-income. Yet, of all HISD students in the gifted and talented programs, only 35 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

There are many good reasons why parents make every effort to place their children in gifted and talented programs. These classes almost always have the best teachers assigned. These courses rarely have special education, limited English proficiency or severely disruptive students enrolled. This is an important advantage to the gifted and talented teacher and students, because classes do not have to be interrupted to handle the needs of special education students and/or behavioral problems.

Gifted and talented students benefit because more time is spent on instruction rather than discipline problems or slow learners. The students have more advanced textbooks and are exposed to enrichment lessons. If a child is selected for a gifted and talented class in kindergarten, that child remains in the program until graduation. Such students receive 15 percent more funding than regular education students.

Students in gifted programs score higher than regular students throughout their school years in all tests, including the SAT and TAKS. The program may suggest one reason why, on average, white students score more than 250 points higher on the SAT test than African-American or Hispanic students in HISD.

The No Child Left Behind Act provides funding for tutoring programs designed to help reduce the achievement gap. In Chicago, 6,000 students were eligible for tutoring -- only 2,300 of them showed up on the first day of that tutoring. Less than 20 percent of students actually completed some type of after-school program designed to make up credit. These credit-recovery classes, which HISD hails as a solution to the dropout problem, are designed for students who have a high rate of absences. However, an assumption of the tutoring policy -- that students who do not attend class will attend after school -- appears to be flawed.

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