In an effort to increase diversity at TUSD’s award-winning University High School, the district will have to change the minimum required score on the GPA and student entrance exam, as well as use other measures, a federal judge ruled.
The ruling from U.S. District Judge David Bury, who is in charge of the Tucson Unified School District’s decades-old desegregation case, sides with a desegregation expert who urged the court to strike down an admissions plan created by TUSD and approved by the Governing Board.
“The district’s UHS admissions process revision does not meet the best practices,” Bury wrote, adding that following the expert’s recommendation will “ensure that in the mean time, the best practices known today will be implemented for the students seeking admission at UHS today.”
The TUSD plan essentially maintained the status quo — the use of a minimum GPA and a score on an entrance exam — but included a motivation test that would be used as an additive score, allowing more students to qualify for admission.
While the district determined that the test — designed to measure student persistence or motivation around learning — could increase hispanic enrollment, it found that it would have little impact on black students.
The desegregation expert, Special Master Willis Hawley, however, argued that the test has not been validated as a good predictor of success in an exam school, much less fostering greater diversity in the pool of students accepted.
In his ruling, Bury noted that exam schools across the country use non-cognitive measures like a student’s participation in exceptional activities, evidence of extra effort, leadership and personal qualities, student essays, teacher recommendations, pre-selection committee reviews and school advocacy tools. “The goal of non cognitive measurements is to ‘surface non-traditional students,’ including minority students, who may not perform on standardized testing in accordance with their abilities to perform well as students,” he wrote.
While the district is required to revise the admissions process, the intention is not to change the rigor. Rather, the goal is to make the rigorous curriculum available to a more diverse student body.
Though it is not part of the special master’s plan, TUSD is not precluded from piloting the motivation test to see if it will impact racial composition at the school, which historically has had disproportionately low African-American and Latino student populations compared to the rest of TUSD’s high schools.
The court found that the recommendations of the special master can be implemented by TUSD by Jan. 15 — that includes developing student essay questions and non-cognitive measures.
Bury also denied the district’s request for oral arguments in the matter, which TUSD is fighting. It filed a hearing request on Wednesday morning, said TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez.
“What’s occurred is, the judge isn’t hearing our side of the case,” Sanchez said. “In our mind, we’re the defendant but we’re also representing the will of the parents, the teachers, administrators and community members who have said ‘this is a good plan, we support it.’
“We’re being responsive to the parents of students we have in school today and the court should give us an opportunity to present that.”
Sanchez said he has since met with the special master, asking for specifics on his plan to include rubrics for essays or any evaluative instrument, none of which Hawley could provide, instead telling the district to figure it out.
While TUSD awaits Bury’s decision, it has begun working on implementing Hawley’s plan because doing otherwise would result in the district being found in contempt of court, Sanchez said.
Should the court once again deny the district an opportunity to present its case, Sanchez said the next step will be to take the request to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“If we say, ‘fine,’ what will happen the next time we have a disagreement?” Sanchez said. “Basically the special master is going to do what he wants to do at his pleasure and mercy but it’s not going to be responsive to the community like we did, it will be what the special master feels is best and that’s not how we should operate.”