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No Child Left Behind? Hardly

Ohanian Comment: Yes, the gap is alarming: The gap between the average scores of white and black fourth graders in Connecticut on the national reading test in 2003 was the third-largest in the country, after Michigan and Washington, D.C.

Igmored in the rants about the reading score gap is the income gap. It's the economy, stupid.

Connecticut is the richest state in the nation, but some of its black-populated cities are among the poorest in the nation Nearly 8% of the population live below the poverty line.

The eight towns that comprise the Connecticut Gold Coast have a median household income of $155,655. The New York Post has dubbed the southwestern “Connecti-Cash” panhandle as the “epicenter of American wealth.”


A WHITE child born in Westport has excellent odds of getting a good education. More than 81 percent of Westport's white fourth graders had reached the state's goal in reading on the Connecticut Mastery Test in 2004, a solid showing that was actually down from the last few years.

The prospects for a black child born in Bridgeport, just a few miles up Interstate 95, aren't nearly so good. Less than 20 percent of black fourth graders in the city met the state's goals last year.

The numbers are impossible to ignore, particularly for parents of children enrolled in public schools in Bridgeport and other cities. Some people are worried the state hasn't been paying attention.

"Connecticut knew all this time there was a gap," said Samurie Robinson, the parent of two public-school students in Bridgeport and one of a group of Bridgeport parents working to improve the system. "They just wanted it to go away."

It hasn't gone away, and the gap has become fodder for a political fight between the state and the federal government over the terms of the No Child Left Behind Act, which aims to lessen the achievement gap. Ms. Robinson said she was not a cheerleader for the law, but she did know that it had called attention to some of the flaws in Connecticut's school system. And that in itself offered hope.

"It exposed a lot to the public," she said. "Now it's out in the open."

Over the past month, the state has battled with the federal government over President Bush's signature education legislation, with the state saying that the No Child Left Behind law was inflexible and that not enough money has gone into it. The nation's largest teacher's union, the National Education Association, is challenging the law in court, claiming it is under-funded. Connecticut has also threatened to file a lawsuit on similar grounds.

After Attorney General Richard Blumenthal announced that he planned to file the suit, Margaret Spellings, the secretary of education, fired back, pointing to the achievement gap in Connecticut as evidence that the state had missed the point of No Child Left Behind. Ms. Spellings declined to comment for this article, but in an interview broadcast on PBS last month, she criticized Connecticut.

"And you know, I think it's un-American - I would call it - for us to take the attitude that African-American children in Connecticut living in inner cities are not going to be able to compete," Ms. Spellings said in the interview.

She also criticized the state for "trying to find a loophole to get out of the law as opposed to attending to the needs of those kids."

Whether or not Connecticut's objections to the law are valid, the state's achievement gap has made it vulnerable to criticism. Even those who said they have concerns about No Child Left Behind - its heavy emphasis on testing, its failure to address some of the underlying causes of the achievement gap - agree that the state has not made nearly enough progress since it began testing in 1984.

"I believe it's getting worse, honestly," said Rory Edwards, the education director for the N.A.A.C.P. in Connecticut.

The state Department of Education said that the gap is narrowing, but acknowledged that the gains have been too small.

There is evidence of progress, said John J. Ramos, deputy education commissioner, "but obviously the growth is not fast enough."

In 2004, 24.9 percent of black fourth graders and 24 percent of Hispanic fourth graders met the state's goals in reading, compared with 63.8 percent of white fourth graders. That nearly 40-point gap was an improvement from 2000, when the gap was about 44 percentage points. In math, results were similar, with an approximately 40-point gap in 2000 shrinking to about 37 points by 2004. But in writing, the achievement gap grew, from about 31 percent to about 33 percent during the same period.

Officials from the state Department of Education, however, said that the gains are greater than the results show because some special-education students had to take more-difficult tests in 2004.

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a series of tests given to students throughout the country, Connecticut students generally do well compared with students from other states. Connecticut's fourth and eighth graders performed above the national average in reading and math in 2003, the latest figures available, as they have for more than a decade. In core subjects, Connecticut's scores regularly have ranked within the top 10 states in the nation.

But the achievement gap remains. While white students score within the top five states in the nation, the scores of black students fall around the middle of the pack nationally. Based on statistics from the 2003 national test, less than 20 percent of black and Hispanic fourth graders are proficient at reading, compared with 54 percent of white fourth graders.

"People in Connecticut might be surprised to learn that African-American eighth graders in Connecticut are reading at a level about the same as African-American eighth graders in Mississippi," said Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, a nonprofit organization based in Washington that analyzes testing data and brings attention to the achievement gap.

The gap between the average scores of white and black fourth graders in Connecticut on the national reading test in 2003 was the third-largest in the country, after Michigan and Washington, D.C. Pennsylvania was fourth. On the eighth-grade math test, even though black students increased their scores by 11 percentage points between 1996 and 2003, the state's gap still placed it 10th from the bottom.

Scores tend to cluster based on income, too. Connecticut students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches under federal poverty standards regularly performed below the state average on the national test.

These gaps will cause consequences. Schools in Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport face restructuring under No Child Left Behind because of their failure to make adequate yearly progress on the tests. The law makes failing schools change personnel or alter their management structure.

Betty J. Sternberg, the state's education commissioner, and others in the education department have argued that the achievement gap is particularly large in Connecticut primarily because white students do so well. So, even though black students are on par with other black students around the country, they still score well below the state's white students. The floor may be the same, but the ceiling is much higher in Connecticut.

Some education experts said that argument has dangerous implications.

"The worst message you can send is that our black and Hispanic students are doing about as well as can be expected," Ms. Haycock said. "Blacks and Hispanics in other states have seen improvements and Connecticut hasn't."

Dr. Sternberg said Ms. Haycock had misconstrued her words to imply that she did not think minority students were equipped to handle the test, and added that this is not what she said or meant. Dr. Sternberg said she was merely pointing out the nature of the statistics.

"All I'm doing is presenting the facts," Dr. Sternberg said.

The state education department has disputed those who claim the state has failed to show progress.

From 2000 and 2004, Connecticut Mastery Test statistics show, the achievement gap between white and minority students closed somewhat. Taking out special-education students and those who are learning English as a second language, the percentage of black and Hispanic students who scored at proficiency levels or higher increased at a faster rate than proficiency rates for white students.

But removing special-education students from the test results raises another concern. Some people who are familiar with Connecticut's urban schools said they have found that minorities are often placed in special-education classes because of bad behavior, not learning disabilities. Eric J. Cooper, who advises schools through the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a not-for-profit organization, said he recently walked into one Stamford middle school where nearly all of the students in special education were black males.

"That's an example of the soft bigotry of low expectations that drives me nuts," he said. "Something's wrong here."

"The belief system that says blacks can't learn must change," he added.

So who is doing this right? Ms. Haycock and Mr. Cooper said they have seen pockets of success throughout the country. New York, for example, has made more progress at reducing the achievement gap. In the last five years, Hispanic elementary school students have closed the gap by 13 percentage points in math and black students by 12 points, according to tests examined by the Education Trust. And minority students in Delaware have increased their scores by more than 20 points over a five-year period.

In Connecticut, too, there are pockets of excellence. Some of them are in New Haven and the surrounding area. At the Worthington Hooker School in New Haven, which has about as many minority students as whites, more than 92 percent of eighth graders met the state's goals in writing, and nearly 98 percent achieved proficiency; around 70 percent met goals in reading and math. Douglas B. Reeves, the director of the Center for Performance Assessment, which consults with the state on standards assessment and runs workshops for teachers and administrators, has visited Worthington Hooker. He said the school was successful because it emphasizes nonfiction writing in all subjects and because teachers collaborate on curriculum decisions across different subjects.

Also in New Haven, students at Amistad Academy, a charter school with a 97 percent minority population, have outperformed schools in much more affluent areas. Amistad, which has gained national recognition for its success, has longer school days than the state's public schools. It also gives students assessments every six weeks, using the data to track progress and target lessons.

Dr. Sternberg has asked the federal government not to make the state test every year - she wants to use frequent targeted assessments like Amistad's as opposed to conducting full-scale tests every year. Those assessments, she said, could be used to immediately improve classroom performance.

"On the statewide tests, it's three and a half months between when they take the tests and when we get the results," she said.

State officials said that the money used for extra testing that would be required by the federal law starting in the 2005-2006 school year - an anticipated $8 million through 2008 - could be spent elsewhere. The state has been targeting programs to low-income districts, increasing taxpayer-financed early-childhood education and after-school programs, among other initiatives. The state knows it has a problem; measuring it more won't change that, said Mr. Ramos, the deputy education commissioner.

"The elephant's not going to lose weight the more you weigh him," he said.

The more money that goes into testing, the less goes into other important programs, Mr. Ramos said. Recently, Hartford had to cut literacy coaching because of budget reductions, he said. A report released by the state education department said that Connecticut would be required to spend $41.6 million to comply with No Child Left Behind, which was supposed to be fully paid for by the federal government. The state's education budget is around $2 billion, Ms. Sternberg said

The federal government has fought the state's proposal to test every other year, saying the law demands that school districts test every year from third to eighth grade. The state has received $750 million in federal funds through No Child Left Behind, federal education officials said.

Meetings late last month between Dr. Sternberg and Ms. Spellings did not appear to resolve the issue. The state was still waiting for federal officials to make decisions on their requests.

In the meantime, parents, teachers and administrators continue to be consumed by the task of reducing the achievement gap. Samurie Robinson, the parent of two Bridgeport public-school students, had one idea. Perhaps teachers from Bridgeport could teach in Westport for awhile, and Westport teachers could come to Bridgeport. But immediately after proposing the idea, she dismissed it.

"I don't know who would want to come here and deal with it," she said.

— Avi Salzman
New York Times
2005-05-01
http://query.nytimes.com/mem/tnt.html?emc=tnt&tntget=2005/05/01/nyregion/01gap.html&tntemail1


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