Last week's release of reading and math scores from 10 urban districts across the country delivered a sobering reality check to the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is struggling with the twin challenges of raising achievement for all of its students while closing the gap that leaves black and Latino students far behind Asian Americans and whites.
Despite an upward trend in LAUSD scores, the federal data show that the district lags behind most other big-city systems and does worse by its black and Latino students than virtually any other urban district. Those students tend to start school with fewer skills than Asian Americans or whites and fall further behind as they move through the system. By eighth grade, black and Latino students score more than three years behind whites and Asian Americans in math skills and two years below in reading. The gap is threatening to grow. Though eighth-grade reading scores rose slightly from 2002 to 2003 for whites, they dropped for blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans.
Research has shown what works to boost success for poor and minority teens: high expectations, qualified teachers, a rigorous curriculum and individual help. The challenge is to create such a culture of success in underfunded, overcrowded, poorly equipped schools where more kids drop out than graduate, untrained teachers come and go, and parental involvement is virtually nil. In L.A. Unified, 77% of the students are Latino, 12% are black and 72% come from low- income families. "It's clear why they're lagging behind," says Russlyn Ali, director of the Education Trust West, a nonprofit group working to close the gap. "It's no wonder these students do less well on tests. We teach them less."
Los Angeles Supt. Roy Romer has a task force devising ways to raise achievement in middle and high schools, including more focused math instruction, better teacher recruitment and training, and the reorganization of giant campuses into smaller, more personal units. Financial and logistical problems have, however, delayed secondary school reform. Nineteen of the district's 50 high schools operate year-round to squeeze in more kids, and thousands of students must still be bused out to less crowded schools. But the current students can't wait for a building boom; they need a commitment now from principals, teachers and parents.