Lelia T. Allen choked up during the state school board meeting this week when she remembered how, as a child growing up in North Carolina in the 1940s, the school buses would pass her by. So she walked - three miles, as the occupants of those buses threw things at her - determined not to be denied an education.
"There were no buses for black children," Allen told me after Tuesday's meeting, her eyes still moist after she voted to uphold a new high school graduation requirement despite fears that it would result in disproportionate numbers of African-American and Hispanic students being denied diplomas.
Emotions ran high during five hours of testimony and debate, and yet the vote came down, bravely and definitively, at 7 to 4, not to delay the launch of the new standard. Starting with this year's seniors, students will have to pass four High School Assessment tests in algebra, biology, government and English to graduate.
Call it tough love, call it more of the test-taking obsession that has smitten American education. I call it a victory.
In education as elsewhere, too often, the solution for failure or the expectation of failure is to lower the bar. The social promotion, the decision a couple of years ago in Baltimore to drop the passing rate from 70 to 60 - even if the reason was to match other districts in the state - sends entirely the wrong message to students, particularly in Baltimore, where the majority are black. As in: "We don't think you can hack it, but rather than fix that, we're going to pass you along and graduate you anyway."
It might not be as blatant as past forms of discrimination - like the outright denial of equal access to education, or the transportation to get there - but it has much the same effect, albeit in a subtler way. It's what President Bush so accurately has called "the soft bigotry of low expectations."
You can look at any number of academic measurements - grades, test scores, graduation and dropout rates - and find lingering racial disparities. And so it was with the HSA results that the board considered before its vote: as a group, the passing rate of black and Hispanic students who have taken the four tests is lower than that of whites and Asians. Special-ed and English language learners are lagging behind on HSA tests as well.
The data prompted board member Rosa M. Garcia, whose day job is to work on behalf of Hispanic students, to express concern that the HSAs will create a two-tiered system in the schools and harm "our most vulnerable students."
And that in turn triggered an impassioned response from the Baltimore schools chief, Andres Alonso, speaking from both a personal and professional perspective. "Let's be careful about who speaks for whom," he warned, noting his own Latino heritage and previous job as a special-ed teacher.
Alonso made the point that there already is a two-tiered system, and it is both criminal and negligent to continue it by holding lower expectations for blacks, Hispanics, non-native English speakers and special-ed students.
Indeed, some of the most spirited defenders of HSA were black members of the board and black and other minority parents who testified at the meeting. Board member Dunbar Brooks thundered that rather than create a two-tiered system, the HSAs have merely exposed it. To continue to graduate students who can't pass the tests, he said, is to continue the inequities and to consign them to the least-skilled and lowest-paying jobs.
"It maintains the status quo," he said.
The HSAs by themselves won't fix decades of educational inequities, but they can go a long way toward instilling personal responsibility on the part of students, and accountability on the part of teachers and administrators. The state's school districts have had years to prepare for their implementation; kids have been taking the four tests even though the results won't prevent graduation until this academic year. As a result, schools have identified which students are in danger of not passing, and have drawn up plans and arranged for extra tutoring to get them over the line. Additionally, those who can't pass the tests have the option of completing alternative projects.
Some problems remain, though: For one thing, it's troubling that only 15 percent of English language learners have passed the tests to date.
Educators say part of the problem is that some have only recently entered the state's schools, and haven't had a chance to take all the courses that would prepare them for the tests.
Sadly, it may take some students more than four years to graduate - although that's not just because of the new requirement, said state educators. They contend that most who don't pass the HSAs also have other problems, with grades or credits, that would prevent them from graduating anyway.
But better that, said board member Allen, than graduating them without the requisite knowledge and skills. A lifelong educator - she proudly notes she has taught everyone from preschoolers to Ph.D.s - she is a professor at the College of Southern Maryland and has seen any number of high school graduates arrive in need of remedial courses to handle college-level material.
"I think high school," as she said during the board meeting, "is the place to drop the gauntlet."