The war on standards, advanced courses edition

The Virginia attorney general’s office is undertaking an investigation of the Loudoun County Public Schools to determine whether the school system denies African-American students equal access to advanced programs. The investigation is a response to claims by the NAACP that Loudoun County does so.

What is meant here by equal access? No particular racial group is entitled to equal participation in advanced programs. But everyone, regardless of race, has the right to fair consideration for admission to them. And no artificial barriers should be placed in the way of any individual or group.

The Washington Post’s report on the attorney general’s investigation elides these distinctions. What’s missing above all is any discussion of the standards Loudoun County uses to select students for advanced programs — the starting point in any intelligent discussion of whether there is racial discrimination.

Instead, we learn only about some of the outcomes when the County’s standards (whatever they might be) are applied. At the Academy of Engineering and Technology, two black students were enrolled this Fall. The same Academy enrolled 79 Asians and 63 whites. In the Academy of Science class, there are three blacks and 102 Asians.

Does this mean Loudoun County is discriminating against black students? No. Nor does it mean that the County is discriminating (for some reason) in favor of Asians.

Absent evidence to the contrary, it just means that Asians, and to a lesser degree whites, are meeting the County’s standards at much higher rates than black students are. Nothing in the Post’s report suggests that the racial disparities here are anything other than the result of fair application of reasonable standards.

The only discrimination mentioned in the Post’s account is a finding in an “equity assessment” commissioned by the County that black students are being bullied. If black students are frequently being bullied by non-black students, that’s a problem that should be investigated (so too if white or Asian students are frequently being bullied by students from other racial groups).

But can “bullying” explain low black enrollment in advanced courses? I doubt it. Nerds have long been bullied at school. This hasn’t prevented them from excelling academically. Arguably, it has motivated them to excel, in part as a way of getting into classes where they were less likely to be bullied.

There is some evidence that the performance of black students is harmed by peer pressure from other black students not to excel. I don’t know whether this dynamic operates in Loudoun County (or anywhere else). However, it’s a more plausible explanation for failure to excel than bullying by members of other races is.

Are we to believe that black students aren’t meeting the rigorous standards for advanced courses because they are sometimes taunted in the hallway or on the playground? Are we to believe that racism is being practiced in the classroom itself to the point that black students can’t learn and/or perform?

What evidence supports these assumptions? They sound like excuses, not reality. Using the catch-phrase “hostile learning environment” isn’t evidence.

No one wants to see advanced courses with low black participation rates. If an anti-bullying program would somehow avoid this outcome, that would be great. If not, the way to avoid it is for black students to raise their performance levels, not for the school system to impose numerical balance.

The result of imposing such balance would be the admission of under qualified students in advanced courses and, as a byproduct, the lowering of the quality of the courses. In other words, the dumbing down of Loudoun County.

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