African-American Students Report to the Gym

by Robert Pondiscio
April 30th, 2009

So now it’s come to this.

Students at a Sacramento-area high school attended standardized test pep rallies — er, sorry…Heritage Assemblies – organized by race to pump up each ethnic group to take state tests.  “Students could go to any rally they wanted,” the Sacramento Bee reports, ”but the gatherings were designated for specific races – African Americans in the gym, Pacific Islanders in the theater, Latinos in the multipurpose room.”

The paper describes a scene in the gym at Laguna Creek High School, where students gathered before a large outline of Africa on the wall. “Last year we scored the highest percentage increase of any group,” Vice Principal Hasan Abdulmalik hollered at the crowd.


Laguna Creek High School Principal Doug Craig said dividing the students by race allowed staff to talk about test scores without making any one ethnic group feel singled out in a negative manner. “Is it racist? I don’t believe it is,” Craig tells the paper, which reports the practice of holding race-specific test prep rallies has become more common in California.  

Gathering and reporting data based on ethnic groups is one of the few unambiguous wins of the NCLB era.  It’s pushed the achievement gap to the front of our education agenda.  But I’m not sure holding “heritage rallies” even rises to the level of well-intentioned but wrong-headed.  At best, it’s yet another example of how schools are putting their problems–and their desperation– on the backs of kids. And a particularly disturbing example at that.

Update:  I was remiss in not tipping my hat to Anthony Rebora, who brought this item to my attention via his forum at Teacher Magazine.


  1. You’ve got to be kidding me! For once, I am speechless.

    Comment by Souzanne A. Wright — April 30, 2009 @ 11:08 am

  2. Am I the only one that thinks that NCLB’s requirements of reporting data based on ethnic groups is at best well-intentioned and wrong-headed?

    Comment by Brian Rude — April 30, 2009 @ 4:40 pm

  3. Horrifying was my reaction. Those that cry that America is still “racist” are working hard to keep it that way.

    Comment by Gina — April 30, 2009 @ 7:21 pm

  4. These rallies may sound “horrifying,” but if they help the students, I’d say they’re worth it. African American students score lower on tests if their race is highlighted before the exam. Small studies have shown that watching a clip of Obama before taking an exam eliminates that gap. Perhaps rallies highlighting an ethnic group’s academic gains will help those groups feel more confident going into tests.

    Comment by Elissa Klein — May 1, 2009 @ 12:26 am

  5. I gotta go with “horrifying” on this one. Any gain in test scores has to be offset by increasing the divisions within the school community. If parents really do support this model, then perhaps a group of them should propose a charter school based on an HBCU model of ethnically isolated education. But dividing students within a single school into race-based activities? That is indeed horrifying.

    Comment by Stephen Lentz — May 2, 2009 @ 9:11 am

  6. This is wrong, even if it sends the test scores soaring. It may result in test score increases, but do those affect learning? Most likely, such pep rallies encourage some students to do their best; when they do their best, they do better when they do not do their best. But one’s best is limited by one’s learning. Thus the positive effects will only go so far.

    I have seen many students give up on tests–they fill in bubbles randomly or just sit still and refuse to write. If all these students made an earnest effort, the school average could well go up. But it will stop at a certain point. Other students who were already trying may be aided by encouragement. But does it have to take the form of rallies like this?

    And the negative effects? Hyping up a shallow sense of heritage for the sake of a test score. Pitting ethnic groups against each other. Making students choose between one ethnic group and another. Promoting ethnic jingoism. Exalting the tests to a status they do not deserve. Breaking up a school community and damaging common culture. Ignoring subtleties of heritage and of education. Downplaying the learning that must take place in order for students to do well not only on tests but in life.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — May 2, 2009 @ 11:06 am

  7. A few days ago, this story would have just seemed bizarre. But now I know why the principal resorted to these “heritage” rallies…our California middle school has just been notified that it’s on the dreaded “program improvement” list, wherein the state takes over and restructures the school per NCLB. Why?, we asked our principal, our scores have been going up. Not, apparently, in two “subgroups”: socioeconomically disadvantaged and Hispanic. So in our small school, getting ten or fifteen Hispanic kids to improve their scores might have saved us from this draconian fate. Our principal’s message: we have to focus intensely on these “subgroups”.

    Comment by Ben F — May 2, 2009 @ 11:52 am

  8. I mainly focus on college and university-level issues, but readers here might be interested in the parallel popularity of “theme halls” in higher ed — segregated housing arrangements that group (say) all the science students in one dorm, or all the nursing students, or all the artists. There are some that are ethnically or socio-culturally based as well: a Latino dorm, or a first-generation freshman dorm. The fixation on population segmentation is very strong in some sectors of higher education.

    I have written a few things against the segregated theme-hall idea, and in favor of cross-sectional liberal education, here:

    Comment by RJO — May 2, 2009 @ 8:42 pm

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