Tests show racial achievement gap
State results shed new light on wealth vs. poverty debate.
By Laurel Rosenhall - Bee Staff Writer
Last Updated 6:38 am PDT Thursday, August 16, 2007
Whether they are poor or rich, white students are scoring higher than their African American and Latino classmates on the state's standardized tests, results released Wednesday show. And in some cases, the poorest white students are doing better than Latino and black students who come from middle class or wealthy families.
The so-called achievement gap -- the difference in performance between groups of students -- has long been chalked up to a difference in family income. It makes sense that -- regardless of race -- students whose parents have money and speak English would do better in school, on the whole, than students whose families struggle with employment, food and shelter.
But this year's test scores show that the difference in academic achievement between ethnic groups is more than an issue of poverty vs. wealth.
On the standardized math tests that public school students take every year from second to 11th grade, 38 percent of white students who qualify for subsidized lunch scored proficient or above, compared with 36 percent of Latino students and 30 percent of black students whose families made too much money to qualify for school meals. On standardized English tests, poor white students did about the same as non-poor Latino and African American students.
"These are not just economic achievement gaps," state Superintendent Jack O'Connell said in announcing the test scores from an elementary school in Inglewood.
"They are racial achievement gaps, and we cannot continue to excuse them."
It's a new twist on what has become a common theme for O'Connell -- the danger the achievement gap poses for California's economic future. About 56 percent of the state's public school students are Latino or black, so their academic performance now will have a big influence on the work force of the future.
"I've been pounding this drum and am going to continue to do so, not just for the moral imperative that we have, but for the economic imperative," O'Connell said.
"We're going to focus on (the achievement gap) like a heat-seeking missile during my last three years here as the state superintendent."
In general, test scores were flat compared with last year, but up from five years ago. Forty-one percent of students were proficient in math this year, while 43 percent were proficient in English. Even though students are doing better than five years ago -- when 35 percent were proficient in math and English -- the achievement gap between racial groups has remained a constant, with white and Asian American students scoring higher than their Latino and African American peers.
O'Connell said little Wednesday to explain why the achievement gap persists.
"That is the $50 billion question," said Francisco Estrada, public policy director for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, one of several Latino and African American activists who lauded O'Connell for drawing attention to the issue, even while they criticized the state government for not doing enough to improve education for students of color.
"Superintendent O'Connell should be commended for not just simply saying, 'We're doing great and let's keep doing what we're doing,' which is what we've heard in other years," Estrada said.
Russlynn Ali, director of Education Trust West, said state policymakers are responsible for the achievement gap that has kept black and Latino students behind because they've done little to put experienced, well-trained teachers and rigorous high-level courses in schools that predominantly serve those groups.
"Our system takes poor kids and kids of color -- not just the students of color who are poor -- and provides them less of everything research says makes a difference," she said.
"That is the underlying cause of the achievement gap."
While Ali blamed the government for distributing resources inequitably, others said the gap is due to teachers' expectations.
"The expectations are not as high for African American students as they are for other students," said Anita Royston, an education consultant who used to work for the Sacramento City Unified School District.
That district's school board president once found the same to be true in his Latino family. In 1989, Manny Hernandez said, his son was forbidden from taking college-prep classes in high school.
"That kind of tracking took place, not because people were bad or racist, but because that was the expectation," Hernandez said.
When he became a school board member some years later, Hernandez wanted to change the district's expectations about who goes to college. The Sacramento City Unified school board increased graduation requirements, so that more students will graduate with more of the courses necessary to enter college.
Sharroky Hollie sees the achievement gap yet another way. He is a professor of teacher education at California State University, Dominguez Hills, who focuses on strategies that help Latino and African American students learn. Hollie says the achievement gap reflects a biased education system that doesn't accept behaviors and learning styles common in African American and Latino communities.
For example, he said, an African American student who is talkative and frequently gets out of his seat will be seen as disruptive and defiant in most schools. Instead, Hollie said, teachers should develop teaching strategies that work with the student's social and kinesthetic nature, a trait that could be attributed to his cultural background.
"The first thing we want schools to do is to change their mind-set in seeing these behaviors as cultural and not negative," he said. "The rest of it is: How can the instruction be reshaped to validate and affirm the cultural behaviors as a segue to standards-based learning?"
Testing experts said too many factors affect test scores to attribute the racial differences to any one thing. Jamal Abedi of the UC Davis School of Education said the test questions use complex language that may throw students off, particularly those who are not native English speakers or who speak in the vernacular at home.
"Those terms prevent students from understanding the assessment questions," he said. "Therefore, they may not be able to respond."
Wednesday's release shows how students did on the California Standards Tests they took in the spring. Their scores are divided into five categories -- advanced, proficient, basic, below basic and far below basic. The goal is for all students to reach proficient or advanced. Later this month, the state Department of Education will use these scores to calculate an Academic Performance Index number for each school and to determine whether schools are meeting the requirements set by No Child Left Behind.