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Forming a committee will not close achievement gap

by Jordan Green

A new report on the educational achievement gap between minority and white students released by the NC Justice Center on April 26 revisits some frustrating and troubling ground.

The report, ‘“The Achievement Gap Revisited: How Minority Students Are Faring in North Carolina’s Public Schools,’” finds that school-wide report cards collected by the NC Department of Public Instruction show that the gap has narrowed over the past five years but significant daylight remains between minority and white students. And while educational efforts have shown some results, significant hurdles remain.

‘“Dropout rates among minority students far outweigh their representative school membership,’” author Sheria Reid writes. ‘“Ethnic and racial minority students are disproportionately represented in the number of students suspended from the school. Minority students continue to be under-represented in advanced and higher-level courses and over-represented in special education classes.’”

Much of the information in the report will not be new to most observers of education reform efforts.

The report might have been titled ‘“A Little Less Talk and Whole Lot More Action,’” with its final conclusion noting, ‘“It’s hard to keep track of all the groups that have been meeting for the past few years to sit around and discuss the problems of the achievement gap. Enough talk; it is time for action.’”

Reid writes that the NC Advisory Commission on Raising Achievement and Closing Gaps proposed 12 recommendations in 2001 for eliminating the achievement gap, and that ‘“nearly five years have passed and those recommendations have not been substantively and fully implemented, in spite of the stated commitment of state leaders to do so after receiving the 2001 report.

The Justice Center’s recommendations for closing the gap include an array of approaches including increasing funding, stepping up reporting requirements and studying how to customize teaching to the specific cultural needs of blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other non-white groups.

The report recommends that more state funding be allocated for providing reading instruction in middle and high schools, and that the state’s Disadvantaged Student Supplemental Fund be fully funded. It recommends that each elementary school in the state be required to submit a written plan to their respective school districts for a so-called ‘“early warning system’” to identify students who are performing below grade level in reading and math in kindergarten through third grade.

The report also endorses the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Raising Achievement and Closing Gaps, in particular two that call for commissioning a study to examine the history of the public education of blacks and American Indians in the state, and best practices for educating Hispanic and Asian students. The two studies would ‘“build a credible body of knowledge about minority cultures that can be used to prepare educators, especially teachers, to more comfortably exchange or interact across ethnic/cultural lines in the classroom.’”

Pressure on state educational leaders to address the achievement gap has come from the NC Supreme Court, which has handed down multiple rulings in Leandro v. State of North Carolina finding that every child in the state of North Carolina ‘“has a constitutional right to an equal opportunity to receive a sound basic education,’” as the Justice Report puts it.

The Justice Center reviewed end-of-grade tests for grades three through eight, which are designed to show whether students are performing at grade level in math and reading. The tests show that in the 2000-2001 school year 82.0 percent of white students in the state scored at grade level and 52.0 percent of black students scored at grade level. By the time the 2004-2005 school year rolled around 88.1 of white students were performing at grade level and 66.1 percent of black students were performing at grade level. Hispanic and Native American students have tended to fall somewhere in between black and white students.

All racial groups considered in the Justice Center study have improved their academic performance over the past four years, and the gap between white and black students narrowed from 30 to 20 percentage points. The share of black students who are not performing at grade level ‘— or receiving what the Justice Center interprets as a ‘“sound basic education’” ‘— remains sizeable.

‘“The harsh reality is that one in three (or more than 70,000) black students did not receive a sound basic education in the 2004-2005 school years,’” Reid writes.

The Justice Center identifies over-identification of minority students as requiring special education as one cause of the achievement gap. Black students are disproportionately represented in two categories, emotionally handicapped and educable mentally handicapped, the report states.

‘“While black students made up 31.5 percent of the overall student population, they made up 52.3 percent of the students labeled behaviorally emotionally handicapped and 60.9 percent of students labeled educable mentally handicapped,’” Reid writes.

Education analysts have noted with dismay that while elementary and middle school students have shown steady growth in academic performance, that progress has not carried over to the high school years. Across the four different racial groups studied ‘—’ white, black, Hispanic and Native American ‘— the percentage of students scoring at grade level or above dropped from eighth grade to tenth grade.

‘“A review of the performance scores for tenth graders in 2003-2004 on the 10th Grade High School Comprehensive Test of Reading and Mathematics shows a decline in performance for all students tested,’” Reid writes.

One nettlesome aspect of the intractability of efforts to address the achievement gap among high school students is the disproportionate rate of disciplinary action against non-white students, according to the Justice Center.

‘“When students are suspended or expelled, they do not learn,’” Reid writes. ‘“They fall behind, and they develop a negative attitude toward school.’”

A flipside of black students’ over-representation in special education classes is their under-representation in college preparation classes.

‘“Local selection policies often result in very few minority students having the opportunity to enroll in either honors or AP courses,’” Reid writes. ‘“Policies and practices that bar students from access to challenging classes or push them out of school are of concern and must be addressed in order to ensure that every child has access to a sound basic education.’”

Calls to Guilford County Schools administration, three Guilford County School Board members and the NC Association of School Administrators seeking comments to counterbalance the Justice Center’s assertions were not returned on April 28.

The left-leaning Justice Center describes closing the achievement gap as a political imperative since the credibility of public education hinges on state education leaders’ ability to substantively address the problem.

‘“In recent years, dissatisfaction with the system and its educational outcomes for their children has led many parents to seek alternatives to public education,’” Reid writes. ‘“Nationally, there is growing support for vouchers and/or school choice that would drain resources from the state’s already struggling public schools. The academic achievement gap that disproportionately affects minority students significantly contributes to the erosion of public support for public education. As a result, minority parents are increasingly willing to listen to calls to privatize the public education system.’”

The report calls public education ‘“the last great public institution that binds the people of America together as a nation.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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