Nearly a quarter of black high school graduates from Indiana are unable to pass the end-of-course tests in Algebra I and 10th-grade English. The exams are mandated by the state but the students who fail to pass the exams can get a district-approved waiver. The situation is even more dire in the Indianapolis Public Schools district where the percentage of black students with waivers is over 30%.
Data about the 2011 graduating class found that black students disproportionally request such waivers even when compared to other at-risk students in Indiana. Graduates from low-income families who qualify for the free- or reduced-price lunch program fail the exams and receive waivers at the rate of one-in-seven. A similar proportion of Hispanic students gets a pass, but it is the comparison between black and white students that is particularly bleak. Only 5% of white Indiana students receive waivers.
“It’s stunning that the disparities are as wide as they are,” said Karega Rausch, Indianapolis director of Stand for Children, a national group that advocates for education reform. “If our goal as a state is to make sure all kids are adequately prepared for what’s next, this data suggests there are some wide gaps that continue to exist.”
The leaders of the African-American community in the state and in Indianapolis seem unsure as to the exact cause behind the disparity. Many attribute it to a combination of factors such as low expectations, poverty and general lack of academic resources. It’s hard to come to a consensus when even the meaning behind the waivers is obscure.
Is it evidence that a student is not adequately prepared? Does it reflect the legitimate need to offset tests that are given too much weight? Does it demean the value of diplomas earned by students who did pass the tests? Or does the waiver label unfairly diminish the accomplishments of a student?
But whatever the meaning, all agree that such a high number of waivers signals a problem. After all, these are exams that are assessing 12-graders achievements in subjects taught in 9th and 10th grade. Not only should most students be able to pass the tests, they should have progressed beyond the material covered in these courses by the time they graduate high school.
Radio host Amos Brown says that the solution is to do away with the test itself, claiming that the scores don’t serve as a good measure of student — and especially black student — progress. Others like State Senator Greg Porter, who represents Indianapolis, believe that doing away or simplifying the test isn’t the answer, and instead schools should focus on raising expectations of its black students.
Besides, “we cannot dumb down the test,” he said. “We have to raise expectations instead. If you raise expectations, they will rise to those expectations.”