By: E. Wayne Ross 

SUNY Binghamton 

Current efforts to reform public education are driven by a fervent desire to improve student test scores. For many states and local school districts the only thing that counts when judging the effectiveness of schools is the scores students produce on standardized tests. Just as elites and the media would have the nation's economic health judged solely on the Dow Jones Average, judgments of school effectiveness have been reduced to test scores. The pernicious effects of this myopic approach to public school reform include: undermining local control over curriculum, the de-skilling of teachers, and now, segregation of kids and teachers by race. 

In the pursuit of higher test scores, a Long Island, New York school district has instituted a tracking system that unfairly segregates kids and teachers by race. The latest "Amityville horror" was concocted in a secret meeting of the seven member Amityville school board and the district superintendent last August and implemented in the fall without input from the public or teachers. The tracking scheme sorts elementary and middle school students into low, regular, and high achievement tracks based on standardized test scores, a practice condemned in a recent report by the National Research Council (Heubert & Hauser, 1999). 

In a district where 68 percent of the students are African American, 16 percent Hispanic, and 16 percent white, the "low-skills" classes enroll 91 percent minorities, while the "high-skills" classes enroll only 60 percent African American and Hispanic students. The Amityville tracking system doesn't stop with students. Although there are 18 African American teachers in grades affected by the plan, only one African American teacher has been assigned to teach a higher-skills class. 

In addition, the Amityville scheme denies students in the "low level" track access to instruction in social studies and science, as well as classes in library, band, orchestra, and chorus. The district defended its tracking system by claiming the intent was to increase the district's below-average test scores and that instruction in any area other than reading and math would be a distraction from this goal. 

Parents and teachers have responded to the plan with justified outrage. Hundreds of parents protested the plan at board meetings in the fall. District Superintendent Dean F. Bettker responded that kids would be moved to higher tracks as their performance improved, but teachers reported only two instances of students moving out of low track classes in the fall semester; both were white children. 

Over thirty years after residents sued to force the integration of Amityville schools, the Amityville Teachers Association and the Long Island branch of the N.A.A.C.P. have joined a group of parents in a $5 million federal lawsuit against the district, asserting that the tracking system is racially discriminatory and unconstitutional. For its part, the district has maintained that the system is justified in an effort to improve test scores and that it is based on assessment of students' skills not race. The school district took out a full-page ad in a local newspaper, which was also mailed to residents, claiming that the "real motive" of the Amityville teachers in protesting the tracking system was to get more money for greedy teachers. 

Unfortunately, Amityville is not an isolated case of re-segregation in the name of reform. Charter schools are being touted as a way to improve public education, but evidence indicates that, at least in some states, these schools are more racially segregated than adjacent public schools. Charter schools are publicly funded but free of many of the regulations that govern the operation of public schools. Proponents claim that charter schools provide greater accountability and school choice as well as freedom for educational innovations, higher efficiency, and competition that will stimulate changes in public schools. Charter schools are now legal in 34 states. 

Two years ago, as North Carolina considered charter schools legislation, many feared a repeat of the "white-flight academies" that emerged from desegregation efforts of the 1970s. To avoid this possibility a diversity clause was inserted into the charter schools bill requiring the schools to "reasonably reflect" the demographics of the local public schools. Ironically, and despite the diversity clause, 13 of the 34 charter schools that opened in the state in 1997 were disproportionately African American, compared with their public school districts. According to the North Carolina Education Reform Foundation, nearly 40 percent of the state's 60 charter schools violate the diversity clause and all but one of these enroll more than 85 percent African American students. More than half of all students attending charter schools in North Carolina are African American, although the school age population of the state is only 30 percent black. Now the North Carolina Association of Educators, a teachers union, and the black caucus of the state legislature are calling for the legislature to force the segregated schools to diversify in the next year or be closed (Dent, 1998). 

Recent studies in California and Arizona find similar patterns of racial and ethnic segregation in charter schools. There are nearly 50,000 students in 150 charter schools in California, with 200 new charters expected in the next two years. Drawing on case studies of 17 charter schools from 10 California school districts, a recent UCLA report found that charter schools were more likely to be accountable for how money is spent than for educational attainment (Wells, 1998). This study concluded that California is not enforcing its requirement that charters achieve a racial and ethnic balance reflective of the local school district's population. In 10 of the 17 schools studied, at least one racial or ethnic group was over-or  under-represented by 15 percent or more in comparison with the local public schools. 

Arizona is home to nearly one in four of the charter schools in the United States. An intensive study of the racial and ethnic composition of over 100 of Arizona's charter schools reveals that nearly half the schools exhibited  evidence of substantial ethnic separation, however, unlike the North  Carolina charters, a greater proportion of white students were enrolled in  Arizona charters (Cobb & Glass, 1999). In comparison to their public school neighbors, Arizona charter schools enrolling a majority ethnic minority students tended to be non-academic schools, that is either vocational secondary schools not intended to prepare students for higher education or "schools of last resort" for students expelled from traditional public schools. The authors of this Arizona State University study concluded that the degree of ethnic segregation in Arizona charter schools is large enough and consistent enough to warrant serious concern among education policymakers. 

In the current discourse and practice of educational reform, test scores are understood as the repository of educational value. This fetishism is so strong in mainstream reform efforts that virtually any practice thought to increase test scores is justifiable, even the re-segregation of schools.  The challenge for people concerned about equality, democracy, and social justice in schools and society is to both resist and re-direct the educational reform movement-a movement that currently promotes standardization and re-segregation while diverting attention away from the conditions of teaching and learning that must be changed if the public schools are to be transformed, such as inadequate and inequitable funding, and lack of local control over budgets, staffing, scheduling, curriculum, and assessment. 

To be successful in this effort, educators, parents, students, and other  members of local school communities must rescue the educational reform  discourse from its obsession with testing. One promising path for  educational reform is through grassroots organizing. Communities and  schools are both strengthened when the resources of universities, schools,  and neighborhoods are combined to tackle social and educational problems  that inhibit meaningful learning and educational achievement. University  faculty can contribute to this effort by providing technical assistance and  support to schools, neighborhoods, and families as well as by advocating  for those who experience isolation, segregation, and oppression. This kind  of work is underway in places like Detroit, where Inclusive Community and  Democracy serves as an umbrella for various grassroots efforts. With more  efforts like these, the deleterious effects of test-driven educational  reform can be replaced by education aimed at achieving democratic,  inclusive learning experiences that foster social and intellectual growth  for all individuals and their communities. 

As teachers, parents, students, and communitiy members we must build  grassroots efforts to re-claim the educational reform movement in the name  of the highest standard: empowering citizens for life in a democratic society. 


1 Slightly different versions of the article have appeared in Theory and Research in Social Education, Volume 27, Number 1, Winter 1999 and Z Magazine, April 1999. 


Cobb, C. D., & Glass, G. V. (1999). Ethnic segregation in Arizona charter schools. Education Policy Analysis Archives [On-line serial]. Available: 

Dent, D. J. (1998, December 12). Diversity rule threatens North Carolina  charter schools that aid blacks. The New York Times On the Web [On-line]. Available: 

Huebert, J. P., & Hauser, R. M. (Eds.). (1999). High stakes: Testing for tracking, promotion, and graduation. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Available: 

Wells, A. S. (1998). Beyond the rhetoric of charter school reform: A study of ten California school districts [On-line]. Available: 

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