Special master will ask court to reject new University High admission policy

2013-12-06T00:00:00Z 2014-07-17T14:27:30Z Special master will ask court to reject new University High admission policyBy Alexis Huicochea Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

TUSD’s new University High School admissions plan is in danger of being struck down after receiving negative feedback from a desegregation expert.

The expert, Special Master Willis Hawley, is seeking federal court intervention for the Governing Board-approved plan, which calls for the use of a motivation test to give students additional points. Hawley is in charge of overseeing the district’s efforts to bring its schools into racial balance.

Calling the new plan the “status quo … with one addition,” Hawley says the motivation test has not been validated as a good predictor of success in an exam school, much less fostering greater diversity in the acceptance pool.

Hawley has offered up an alternative admissions plan that includes changing the “cut score” prospective students must achieve on the existing grade-point average and entrance exam, and using other measures to increase the pool of eligible candidates.

Tucson Unified School District Superintendent H.T. Sanchez, however, would prefer to continue on the already board-approved path, which calls for the use the existing criteria while piloting the motivation test. TUSD would use the success rate of students who enter through both models to gauge the effectiveness of the new criteria and make adjustments as necessary before moving away from the existing model completely.

“It would be disingenuous to dishonor the work of so many to change the plan before giving it an opportunity to work or be adjusted,” Sanchez said in a memo to the Governing Board. “My stance will be to support the work of the team who crafted the plan as well as the board who approved the plan. … Overall, our work is to create a good product that honors all of our students.”

TUSD is required under a decades-old desegregation order to review and revise the UHS process used to select students for admission to ensure multiple measures are in place and that all students have an equitable opportunity to enroll.

Historically, UHS has a disproportionately low African-American and Latino student population compared with the rest of TUSD’s high schools.

While the desired effect of revising the criteria is to increase the number of minority students, TUSD leaders do not want to achieve that goal by altering the rigor of UHS or by enrolling students who cannot succeed academically.

In crafting the new admissions plan, TUSD sought to identify what other exams schools use across the country.

But Hawley points out that there is no indication a motivation test should be used. Instead, many schools use student essays, teacher recommendations and noncognitive measures like exceptional activities, evidence of extra effort, leadership roles and personal qualities — measures that TUSD has agreed to look into but says it is too late to do so for the upcoming year.

“There is ... nothing mysterious about the types of measures suggested above; they are certainly less mysterious than the (motivation) test,” Hawley wrote in a Nov. 22 memo to the federal judge overseeing the desegregation case. “Student essays and noncognitive measures are used by almost all selective colleges and universities.”

In the memo, Hawley requests that the judge — who appointed Hawley to the oversight position — immediately direct TUSD to implement an alternative course of action that will better achieve the desegregation goals.

Since the enrollment process has already begun for the next school year, Hawley recommends an expedited review of applicants with the criteria used for the current school year, which does not include a motivation test. In the meantime, the district would develop student essay questions and noncognitive measures by no later than Jan. 15.

Applicants who are potentially eligible for admission would be identified by changing the minimum required score on the GPA and entrance exam enough to increase the pool of eligible candidates by at least 33 percent.

Students in that preliminary eligibility pool will be invited to write a qualifying essay and complete a noncognitive questionnaire. An additional number of points based on essays and evidence of student characteristics related to achievement would be added to the GPA and entrance exam scores.

Though Hawley did not voice much confidence in the motivation test, he does not recommend that it be abandoned all together. Instead, he suggests testing 2014-15 applicants on at least two types of motivation assessments, using the results to evaluate the impact on the racial composition of University High’s student body, which Hawley says could lead to a decision to not use such an assessment.

The district has shared Hawley’s feedback with a University High parent advisory group, which voiced support for the board-approved admissions pilot plan, according to Adrian Vega, deputy superintendent of teaching and learning.

The district has not formally responded to Hawley’s memo, as it is seeking approval from the federal court to do so before the judge makes a decision.

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at ahuicochea@azstarnet.com or 573-4175. On Twitter @AlexisHuicochea

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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