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Adios, escuela
Only 30 percent of Boston’s Hispanic ninth-graders will graduate from high school in four years. The only scandal worse than that: Nothing’s being done about it.

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.

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Issue Date: March 12 - 18, 2004
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