Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

NCLB Outrages

Minority Students Trail in Suburbs

Ohanian Comment: The one positive thing about NCLB is that it prevents districts from hiding the underperformance of some groups of children. But this story doesn't have enough facts to allow one to draw any conclusions. As they admit, they know nothing about the students scoring lower.

Across the Pennsylvania suburbs, high-achieving and well-funded schools are facing sizeable gaps in achievement between white and minority students.

The racial learning divide exists in 84 percent of the 204 suburban schools with minority students, an Inquirer analysis of state math and reading test results shows.

This achievement gap, with black and Latino students falling behind white students, persists even in such high-performing districts as Abington, Lower Merion, Downingtown, West Chester, Tredyffrin-Easttown and Wallingford-Swarthmore.

The problem also exists in a fourth of Philadelphia schools.

The gap emerges from new data, released as part of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which seeks to identify areas of poor student performance. States must report grade-level proficiency scores for racial and ethnic minorities, poor and special-education students. New Jersey plans to release similar data in February.

Harvard economist Ron Ferguson, who specializes in the achievement gap, said the new rules made disparities "more difficult to sweep under the rug." In the past, he said, districts could mask poor minority student performance behind high overall school achievement.

Rogers Vaughn, the West Chester board president, said that districts traditionally have "dealt with averages, compared themselves with other districts and, if they did well, patted themselves on the back."

The Inquirer analyzed Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test results for grades 5, 8 and 11 for 2003. In the 204 suburban schools with minority students, 84 percent showed them performing at least 10 percentage points below whites in reading and math.

In addition, the analysis found that:

In 89 percent of the 162 suburban schools with black students, those students scored lower than whites in math; in 83 percent of the schools, blacks scored lower in reading.

Half of suburban schools with black students missed state goals because not enough black students passed the reading test.

In 91 percent of suburban schools with Latino students, those students scored lower than whites in math; in 80 percent of schools, Latinos scored lower in reading.

Going against the trend, blacks outperformed whites in about a dozen suburban schools; Asians outperformed whites in nearly 80 percent of schools they attended.

The data did not indicate whether the underperforming minority students were also poor or in special education.

Advocates for minority children last week expressed dismay at the disparities.

"You look at the numbers and look at the group and have to ask, what is going on here?" asked Diana Robertson, president of the Main Line NAACP. "And what are you going to do about it? The system has to be responsible for the education of all children."

While the details are new to the public, school officials have known for about two years that they are obligated to pay attention to the performance of students in the subgroups; many are addressing it.

The West Chester school district - where six of its 15 schools show black students lagging white students - two years ago set up a minority achievement committee and has hired extra reading specialists to work with struggling students.

In the high-performing Lower Merion school district, the achievement gap exists in five of its 10 schools. "We think any subgroup of children not achieving proficiency or above at high levels needs our attention," said Thomas Tobin, assistant superintendent.

Philadelphia, which has long faced low scores and an achievement gap, has seen results with innovative curriculum in math and reading.

Nationwide, "there's been a tendency to dummy down the curriculum particularly for poor minority children," said Paul Vallas, chief executive officer of the Philadelphia School District. "The effect of that has been to institutionalize poor achievement. The way to close the gap is to teach to high standards."

Philadelphia has less of a performance gap than the suburbs. In fact, in 27 percent of schools with both black and white students, black students scored better in either math or reading.

Vallas said that breaking out test scores for minority and ethnic groups "is long overdue. It's one of the strongest features of No Child Left Behind."

School officials are scrambling to improve student results and identify the causes of disparities.

The North Penn district, for instance, held a two-day retreat in August to identify trends in 2003 test data.

Lower Merion has added reading and math specialists in its elementary schools.

Colonial is among districts that have set up after-school and summer programs for students with weak skills.

Norristown has opened all-day kindergartens - also planned next year in Colonial.

Hatboro-Horsham credits a 96 percent attendance rate for black students as helping close a reading gap. "Time on task is important. You cannot learn when you are not in school," said assistant superintendent Curtis Griffin.

In William Penn's Penn Wood East Junior High School, where a third of new students last year were transfers, new students are tested to catch those who are lagging in skills.

West Chester has begun sensitivity training for new hires. "I think there's still a stigma with minorities and disadvantaged students," said Debora Sahijwani, the district's assessment supervisor. "People make assumptions about their ability to learn. I think it's unconscious, but it's there."

Why this disparity exists is complex and stems from a variety of factors including poverty, early learning of reading and math skills, teacher-student interaction and home learning.

In high-achieving suburban districts, it is harder to pinpoint reasons for persistent gaps, said Robert Floden, who directs a teaching institute at Michigan State University.

"Sometimes it's still poverty-related," he said. "Part of it is just puzzling... . People are trying to sort out what's due to family background and what's due to things that go on in the schools."

Edmund Gordon, a founder of Head Start and director of Columbia University's Institute for Urban and Minority Education, is now focusing on "supplemental education" - what happens outside of school.

He said many African Americans believe that only schools are responsible for providing education. "We're trying to convince people that what happens outside of school is an important adjunct," he said.

Ferguson, the Harvard economist, found that teacher attitudes play a role. "It is a challenge to get teachers to acknowledge that they can do things much differently," he said. "Many of them believe strongly that 'I am doing the best with the kids I have.' "

— Connie Langland and Alletta Emeno
Minority students trail in suburbs
Philadelphia Inquirer


This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.