State education's racial gap widening
Arizona Republic
Jul 19, 2008

 2002, a federal law gave schools a mandate: Help minority kids score better on tests and succeed in school.

by Pat Kossan


The achievement gap between Arizona's African-American and White students has stagnated and even widened in recent years, a new study shows.

The percentage of African-American kids passing Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards is at a near standstill, and in some cases the students are actually losing ground, according to a study by the Center on Education Policy. The study looked at test scores and passing rates between 2005 and 2007. Here's a sample of what the study found in Arizona.

 In 2007, 55 percent of African-American eighth-graders passed the AIMS reading exam, down from 57 percent in 2005. Both years, 79 percent of White eighth-graders passed the reading exam.

 African-American sophomores' 2007 passing rates on the reading exam was 64 percent, down from 66 percent in 2005.Both years, 86 percent of White sophomores passed the same test.

 African-American fourth-graders' passing rates on the reading exam remained steady at 55 percent over both years. The study gave them a 1-percentage-point gain only because White passing rates slid from 81 percent to 80 percent the same years.

Overall, more African-American students are catching up with their White peers across the country. And while Arizona's African-American students are raising their AIMS test scores, scores are still not high enough to actually pass the grade-level exams in greater numbers, said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy.

African-American students make up 5 percent of the 1.1 million students in Arizona schools. Their small number often forces schools to put these students' particular needs at a lower priority, researchers and educators say. Without enough active and college-educated parents to demand more, African-American kids suffer disproportionately from Arizona's crowded and underfunded school system, experts say. It leads to less academic success and a graduation rate 10 percentage points lower than that of Whites.

Some students say these bleak academic statistics hang over them like a dark cloud, leading many teachers to stop expecting them to succeed.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 has reshaped Arizona classrooms with one overriding goal: Push poor, minority kids until they match the academic progress of their White, wealthier peers.

Arizona's African-American students' failure to get much closer to that goal is an indicator of just how hard it will be for educators to close the state's achievement gap.

But the law cannot be expected to cure a decades-old problem, even if it had provided all the money it promised, said David Goldberg of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights in Washington, D.C. The federal government contributes only 9 percent to state education budgets, he said.

The achievement gap, Goldberg said, is a local problem.

Funding shortages

Arizona's African-American children live in a state that ranks close to last in funding its schools.

Schools have little money to spend on the needs of a small minority of kids when stretching their already skimpy budgets.

For example, there is less pressure for schools to stock books that would grab the attention of African-American students or textbooks that examine African-American roles in history, said Minnie Andrews, a Northern Arizona University education professor.

But ask teachers what they are doing to help African-American students succeed and it puts many on the defensive, fearing they'll be seen as racist, Andrews said.

"You hear so often the statement: 'I see all of them the same,' " Andrews said. "That's exactly part of the problem, not recognizing and valuing kids as individuals."

Parents are often reluctant to visit schools. Many faced racism in school as a child or don't know how to have their voices heard, Andrews said.

Without African-American parents volunteering or attending board meetings, schools are unlikely to respond to the needs of their students, said Leroy Dean, an electronics technician who grew up in South Phoenix and is raising five kids there.

"When you get involvement like that, you get better responsibility out of those people," Dean said.

Teacher retention

The achievement gap between Arizona's African-American and White kids would not be an issue if its schools attracted and kept top teaching talent, said Mari Koerner, an Arizona State University education dean.

"If there were a qualified teacher in every classroom, there would be no achievement gap," Koerner said.

That is the evidence from long-running research in schools across the country where each poor and minority student graduates and goes onto college. Many of Arizona's most talented teachers either move out of the field to higher-paying jobs or move to suburban districts or out of state.

"They migrate to where there are more resources, more teacher development, more support and higher salaries," Koerner said. "The churn is incredible."

Dean's daughter, Jasmine, 17, said that churn made a difference to her.

"After my junior year, well over half the faculty had already left," the South Mountain High School graduate said. "It wasn't like you could build a relationship with this person, because you'd build it and they were gone."

She did find Suzanne Pachuta, one of the few teachers some African-American students say expect great things from them and help if they falter. Pachuta is not African-American, but she does not dismiss the importance of African-American kids seeing successful African-American adults in their schools.

"It helps when they see someone who looks like them, feels like them and kind of connects with them," Pachuta said. "That can be really, really powerful."

Racism in schools

Some African-American students can't tell you what an achievement gap is, but they will tell you bluntly that racism exists in schools and plays a role in student failure.

Sophia Thomas, 19, a graduate of Phoenix's North High School, said she was often stuffed into classrooms without enough books and desks.

"Teachers were always making comments like: 'Don't worry, half of you are going to drop out anyways,' " said Thomas, now a student at Phoenix College.

Robert Anderson, 19, a student at Phoenix College, said few adults want to admit racism exists.

Anderson was the only African-American male student in his honors classes at Phoenix's Central High School. He said it made him a target for constant questions such as: "Is your mother married?"

His own African-American friends added to the pressure, asking him what he did in that other building with those White kids. Both Anderson and Thomas credit their parents for keeping them in school.

Dean said he often pulls out his old report cards to show his kids that even the African-American child of a teen mother can make the honor roll. He drives them to neighborhoods they could live in if they succeed in school and those they could live in if they fail.

"If they hear it every day and you're trying to show it to them, there's no pressure like daddy pressure," Dean said.

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