School Equity Fight Gets 'Smarter' A California Suit Argues That Students Who Have Limited Access to Advanced Classes Get Hurt in College Admissions

Article excerpt

Rasheda Daniel has no illusions about how hard it will be to get into the University of California at Berkeley. That's why the high school senior has taken all the toughest courses at Inglewood High here. That's why she spends hours each night on homework, keeping up a straight-A average. That's why she got a job at a local comedy club, to spice up her rsum.

Yet she worries this might not be enough. Over in zip code 90210, students at the predominately white Beverly Hills High School can take as many as 14 advanced placement classes - high-level courses that the University of California weighs more heavily. Mostly minority Inglewood offers only three.

Because of this discrepancy, Rasheda is suing the state of California in the first legal action of its kind in the nation. For her, the suit is an attempt to allow blacks the same opportunity to compete as whites have. More broadly, though, it symbolizes a new approach in the way minorities are fighting to enforce equity in US schools. Instead of concentrating primarily on desegregation and affirmative action - programs in retreat in the courts and many cities across the country - minority groups are now focusing more on curriculum to redress historic inequities.

Thus, the lawsuit filed here last week could resonate through linoleum-tiled schools nationwide as parents and students try new ways - such as vouchers and more AP classes - to change what goes on in the classroom.

"People are finding one path blocked and trying to find others to get some measure of equity," says Gary Orfield, a professor at Harvard University's School of Education in Cambridge, Mass.

Decades ago, desegregation was seen as perhaps the key step toward improving lagging public schools. Yet today, while polls show achieving racial balance in the classroom remains an important goal among minorities, curriculum and improved learning are the primary focus.

"Integration is still highly regarded, but academic achievement is clearly priority No. 1," says Steve Farkas, director of research for Public Agenda and co-author of a 1998 study on African-American attitudes about public schools. "Who you sit next to is less important than what you learn in the classroom," he adds.

For students, access to AP classes is an integral part of this mission. Because of the challenging nature of AP classes, many state university systems, including California's, offer college credits to students who score well on the AP exam. In addition, they give students in AP classes 5 grade points for an A instead of the regular 4.

Responding to this encouragement, students have flocked to the AP. Since 1984, the number of AP exams taken has risen from 240,000 to more than 1.1 million. Therefore, say participants in the lawsuit, students who have limited access to AP classes are disadvantaged in the admissions process at top universities.

"With the disparities in AP courses in California, the playing field is at a 90 degree angle," says Mark Rosenbaum, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union here, which is bringing the suit on behalf of Rasheda and three other students in Inglewood, a suburban Los Angeles community.

Indeed, studies show how crucial a strong curriculum is. A recent report by the US Department of Education said that completing a solid academic core was more strongly correlated with getting a bachelor's degree than high school test scores, grade-point averages, or class ranks. …