A student in a prestigious college preparatory program at a Sacramento city high school last week made international headlines after the news of his science fair project on “Race and IQ” went viral.
Wondering why there was a lack of diversity within his academically challenging magnet academy, the sophomore presented the hypothesis that it was because blacks, Southeast Asians and Hispanics aren’t as smart as teenagers of other races. The program currently has 509 students enrolled: 247 identified as white, 104 Asians, 89 Hispanics, 12 African Americans, and 57 students of mixed or other ethnic background.
To test his theory, the student – who is described by peers as of Northeast Asian descent – had a handful of teens take an online IQ test. The student reported that he found “non-Hispanic whites and Northeast Asians have an IQ advantage of fifteen points over blacks and Southwest Asians, and 10 points over nonwhite Hispanics.”
That, he argued, made “the racial disproportionality of (the program) justified.”
The project remained on display for two days, despite protests from students. A flood of complaints from parents and students after The Bee wrote about the incident Saturday led the superintendent of schools to announce a districtwide review of diversity in the program and others like it throughout the city.
The Bee story also prompted many questions from readers. Here are some answers from our reporting.
What is the HISP program and how do kids get in?
HISP stands for Humanities and International Studies Program. Started 32 years ago, it aims to provide students with varied viewpoints on history and other subjects. It’s a magnet program beginning in ninth grade that draws students from across the Sacramento region and is considered a pathway to top universities.
About 140 kids are accepted each year, though more apply, according to the prospective student page. The application process includes a timed essay and recommendation letters. Spots are offered to students who meet the basic criteria and score in the top 20 percent at each of the district’s middle and K-8 schools. Any extra slots are given to qualifying students in a lottery.
Has the program tried to be more diverse?
Yes. Students and parents in the program said that they have tried to increase diversity in the past. Efforts have included outreach to local middle schools to encourage more children to take higher-level classes to prepare them to apply.
Is this an isolated incident or are there more kids in the program with similar views?
This seems to be an isolated incident, though many students told The Sacramento Bee that the sophomore who created the project has a history of making race and gender comments that they have found offensive. Some told The Bee that they had spoken to teachers and administrators about the student, but little had been done to address his behavior.
About a dozen HISP students contacted The Bee to condemn the science project and ask that they not be associated in media coverage with his actions. But some district kids – including some in the HISP program – said that they do believe there is more the campus can do to be inclusive. One Latino student at a different advanced high school program in Sacramento said he turned down admission to HISP because of the lack of diversity.
Doesn’t the student have a right to free speech even if the topic is controversial?
Maybe. Case law on freedom of speech in schools is complicated and nuanced, according to legal experts contacted by The Sacramento Bee. There is not a clear cut answer on whether the student had a right to display the project if administrators thought it included hate speech or disrupted other students.
In a video statement, Sacramento City Unified School District Superintendent Jorge Aguilar said, “The use of racially offensive language in our schools, by anyone, does not reflect our values as a school district and will not be tolerated. ... Yes, we’ll respect freedom of speech, but we will also uphold our duty to limit speech that is likely to cause disruptions to our students.”
Did the student use good research methods to prove or disprove his hypothesis?
The research methodology appears questionable, judging from the photos of the project obtained by The Sacramento Bee. The research materials cited are out-of-date or controversial. Multiple academics contacted by The Bee had never heard of one of the sources cited, “The Essential Kafir,” a 1904 text that argued South African blacks are not as intelligent as whites. The term “kaffir” is considered a racial slur in contemporary South Africa.
In addition to poor sources, the student used a free online intelligence test on his subjects. On the Facebook site for the test, the company boasts that most people took less than 20 minutes to complete it, and the website offers other tests including a “sadomasochism tendency test” and “what is my ideal height.”
Many people also raised questions about the quality of the project, which appears to consist of hastily cut construction paper taped to a poster board. While The Bee did not ascertain if the student had access to other materials, another HISP student involved in the science fair said the project was assigned last fall and students have been working on it since.
Did a teacher or faculty member review the project before it was displayed?
Multiple students said that the teacher had reviewed their initial hypotheses and checked on students’ progress multiple times over the months they were working on their projects, so it seems likely the teacher did review it.
Is the teacher in trouble for this?
District spokesman Alex Barrios said an investigation into the matter was ongoing. Aguilar, the superintendent, said the district was investigating if “proper instructional protocols were followed.”
If the teacher saw it and thought it was OK, why was it taken down?
Students first viewed the projects on Monday, Feb. 5, when they were put on display in a classroom ahead of judging by community members the next day. Multiple students told The Sacramento Bee that at this point, students brought their concerns to the teacher and other administrators. The project wasn’t removed until Wednesday, after judges had viewed it.
Barrios, the district spokesman, said ultimately the project was taken down because it was disrupting the school’s learning environment.
Why was the student not identified?
While The Bee does know the student’s name, the paper is not identifying him because he is a minor and reporters have been unable to reach him directly. The school district has been in touch with him.
Did the student receive a passing grade?
We don’t know if the student received a passing grade on the portion of the project already evaluated. Multiple sources at the school told The Sacramento Bee that the projects were judged by volunteer community judges with a scientific background. The community judges will weigh in on the final grade, and those have not been released yet.
Students also said that the teacher has given grades on progress reports that have taken place periodically since the assignment was given last fall, and those scores were included in students’ overall grade last semester. The science fair was only open to students of three honors chemistry classes taught by the teacher, and completing the project is a class requirement.
Science classes are not part of the HISP program, which only includes the humanities, but HISP students also tend to be in the same math and science classes.