Separate and Unequal at Berkeley's Small Schools 

Berkeley High embraced the small schools movement to close its staggering racial achievement gap. But evidence suggests that these schools are exacerbating the very problem they were supposed to solve.

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In fact, the test scores at Berkeley High have been moving in the wrong direction. At a January 14 board meeting, the school district's evaluation and assessment director, Rebecca Cheung, presented similarly stark data based on California exit exam results for all Berkeley High tenth graders, broken down by race. In 2008, only 40 percent of African-American tenth graders passed the California math exit exam on their first attempt, as opposed to 50 percent in 2006. Only 92 percent of white tenth graders passed in 2008, versus 95 percent in 2006. Only 78 percent of Asian students passed in 2008, versus 84 percent in 2006. Just Latino students improved their scores: 68 percent in 2008 versus 65 percent in 2006. The trends were somewhat better for the language arts exit exam. In 2008, only 55 percent of African-American tenth graders passed on their first attempt, versus 62 percent in 2006. About 95 percent of white tenth graders passed in both years. However, 75 percent of Asian tenth graders passed in 2008 versus 72 percent in 2006. And Latino students again showed marked improvement: 69 percent in 2008, versus 62 percent in 2002.

Testing data also shows a huge performance disparity between small and large schools. Last month, small schools critic Priscilla Myrick took Berkeley High's recent data from the mandatory California Standards Test and sorted it by school. The discrepancies were staggering. In 2008, 31.5 percent of large school students tested "proficient" in math, which was a lot higher than the four small schools: Arts and Humanities Academy had 20 percent proficiency, versus 11 percent at the School of Social Justice and Ecology, 5 percent at Communication Arts and Sciences, and 2 percent at Community Partnerships Academy. For language arts, the large schools averaged 60 percent proficiency in 2008, which was, again, much more than the small schools: Arts and Humanities Academy had 42 percent proficiency, versus 41 percent at the School of Social Justice and Ecology, 25 percent at Communication Arts and Sciences, and 23 percent at Community Partnerships Academy. The breakdown was roughly the same in 2007 and 2006.

In fact, small school supporters deemphasize test scores and all but admit that their campuses won't succeed according to this traditional measurement of academic performance. "No, you're not gonna see a huge gain in that perspective," conceded Victor Cary, current program director at BayCES and one of the main architects of Berkeley High's redesign. "We have some things, but if the test score is the primary thing then we'll lose."

Most small schools supporters say test scores don't even matter. "The state values one thing, which is test scores — that's hard-wired into the state and federal accountability system," said Steve Jubb, the former executive director of BayCES. "Kids, teachers, and families to a large degree value something else. ... There are lots of reasons why test scores go up or down. Whether you're teaching them what's on the test is one reason, whether the kids got fed that day, or speak another language, or are emotionally distraught is another reason."

Berkeley has long been wary of standardized tests. Since 2004 it hasn't even tested the correct number of students to get an Academic Performance Index ranking from the California Department of Education. Not to mention that college entrance exams are voluntary in Berkeley, and small school students tend not to take them. But critics note that if the rest of the academic world uses standardized tests to measure success and Berkeley High doesn't, then it isn't really preparing its students for college. Test scores do matter, and at one point BayCES admitted as much. In its 2008 federal grant proposal, it stated: "Anticipated project outcomes include improved standardized test scores and college preparedness for African-American and Latino students."

Moreover, Berkeley High appears to be giving small schools students the perception that they're doing better than they really are. Disparities between the students at small schools and big schools have long been evident among the student population at Berkeley High, said Noah Teller, a junior in the International Baccalaureate Program who started a Facebook group opposing Berkeley High's redesign. "If you get in one of the big schools, you'll do well if you try hard," Teller explained. "If you're in one of the small schools, you'll be told you're doing well, and be failing."

But not actually failing. A few months ago, two Berkeley High science teachers — Kavaler and Amy Hansen — noticed something was fishy. They were teaching a vocational class at Berkeley High called Biotech Academy, which helps prepare kids for jobs in science and technology. Normally, said Kavaler, kids' lab skills reflected whatever grades they were getting on their report cards. A students would do pretty well, while C or D students would need extra help. But last semester, Kavaler noticed a change: Small schools kids were coming in with stellar GPAs, but no skills. In fact, the skills of A students from small schools were on par with those of students who were failing in the big schools. It didn't make sense, she said. "Kids from Academic Choice were getting straight Ds, kids from [Community Partnerships Academy] were getting straight As. And they were at the same level."

Kavaler shrugged it off at first. Having taught at small schools herself, she knew they operated in a parallel universe. Over the summer she had worked with several biology teachers to come up with a standardized final that everyone had agreed to use — mostly to see who did the best job of teaching evolution. At the end of the semester, none of the small schools gave the final. "We all know why," she said. "They didn't cover the same material, and they didn't cover it in the same way."

But Hansen was furious, and wanted to investigate the matter. The two began looking at student transcripts, and soon concluded that small schools students were, in fact, earning grades that exceeded their actual skill level. Moreover, they saw that students could fail a class and get credit for it anyway. "We found out kids in [Community Partnerships Academy] were in a chemistry class, failing it, and ended up getting credit for a physical science," Kavaler said. "So if you look at their transcript it says a C in physical science."

Hansen and Kavaler were mortified. On January 18, they and a third science teacher, Matt McHugh, wrote a letter that outlined their criticisms. They said that some small schools had a special class called "senior diploma seminar" that allowed kids to get credit for a lab science class they had failed. Unlike summer school, such seminars are taught during the year, usually by teachers who are not credentialed in the subject area. The kids who take them get independent study credit, which goes against school policy, according to the three teachers. Moreover, they said, small schools are mixing different classes together in the same room — human anatomy with integrated science, chemistry with physical chemistry, biology with advanced biology — so students can enroll in one course and get credit for another.

Finally, and most damningly, they said the teachers at small schools were pressuring teachers at big schools to change students' grades. Kavaler said it's happened to her more than twice. "Small schools administrators admit it's happening and they have no qualms about it," she said.

The teachers e-mailed their critique in January to Principal Slemp and Superintendent William Huyett, hoping that it would create some kind of stir. When their complaints were largely ignored, they sent a letter to the campus newspaper, the Berkeley High Jacket. Hansen had wanted the letter to run January 24, in time for the February 11 school board vote on Berkeley High's redesign plans for next year. But Jacket editors Megan Winkelman and Natalie Orenstein held off until February 27, so they could write an accompanying story and invite small schools teachers to write a rebuttal.

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