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New MAP scores show difficulty of erasing achievement gap between blacks, whites

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 11, 2009 - The push to improve educational opportunities for minorities and to close the achievement gap between some minorities and whites has become a central issue in the debate about race and education. The drive to close the gap actually took root with the landmark Supreme Court ruling for school desegregation in 1954 and has continued into this decade with the equally far-reaching No Child Left Behind law.

The Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, reflected the view that society had stunted the intellectual growth of black children by relegating them to lives of poverty, racial isolation and underfunded, segregated schools.

More recently, the debate has shifted. President George W. Bush, for example, took the debate in a different direction when he pushed through his No Child Left Behind law; Bush blamed what he called "the soft bigotry of low expectations" for low test scores among minorities.

In spite of all the efforts during the years between Brown and Bush, the gap remains real and persistent, as demonstrated by the latest achievement test scores released by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education .

MAP Scores Remain Low

DESE reports that white and Asian students generally are making progress, while African Americans and Hispanics lag far behind. The department reports that 23 percent of African-American students were proficient in math on the most recent Missouri Achievement Program test, compared to nearly 54 percent of white children, nearly 65 percent of Asians, and about 36 percent of Hispanics.

On the communication arts portion of the exam, 57 percent of whites and about 62 percent of Asians scored at the proficient level. Nearly 38 percent of Hispanics and about 30 percent of blacks scored at the proficient levels.

If the scores of some minorities seem low, however, it should be pointed out that the gap doesn't end with them. There's a much smaller white gap, too, between scores and expectations. The state set a proficiency goal of 54 percent for math this year. Among white studnts, 53.6 percent of them met that goal; nearly 65 percent of Asian children met or exceeded it. The proficiency goal for communication arts was 59.2 percent this year. White students fell short with a proficiency score of 56.6 percent. Asian students exceeded the goal with a proficiency level of 61.7 percent. Some observers argue that the gap among whites is explained by the fact that the MAP is a tough test.

At any rate, the primary debate is over the gap between the scores of black and white students, and educators, parents, teachers and others offer a range of explanations for the problem.

Class, Not Race?

Rory Ellinger, a lawyer and former member of the University City School Board, says the problem has more to do with class and encouragement rather than race.

"The most affluent kids in U. City happen to be white," he says. "It doesn't matter the skin color. It has to do with economics. You have people who can afford to send their kids to Country Day, Burroughs and St. Louis University High, and you have another group that cannot afford to do that. Yet you expect to teach and expect all these kids to learn at the same capacity. That's the built-in problem in a district like U. City."

Last year, 31 percent of the district's African-American students were proficient in communication arts, compared to 82 percent of whites; similarly, 27 percent of black kids were proficient in math, compared to 83 percent of whites.

Ellinger thinks the solution is to take students where they are academically and make sure they are proficient in the basics. At the moment, he argues that some districts might spend time focusing on course work, such as foreign language, that students with lagging scores may be unequipped to handle. He argues that these youngsters would benefit most from rigorous teaching to help them master the basics of reading, writing and math.

"The difficulty in U. City and many school districts is not white and black; it's rich and poor. It's very hard if you're poor to give your kids the same advantages as a wealthy child."

Susan Uchitelle, who formerly headed up the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp., also thinks that closing the academic achievement gap will take time and says, like Ellinger, that districts will have to focus more on the basics and help children reach grade level and beyond.

A different view comes from Karen Kalish, head of a student group called Cultural Leadership. She argues that the gap is influenced mostly by upbringing.

"It starts even before birth," she argues. "Young people who come to school the very first day, and in kindergarten in inner cities, not just in St. Louis, know only 500 words. I knew 6,000. I was read to 1,700 hours by my parents. And kids who go to school in St. Louis have been read to a total of 25 hours in those five years."

Her solution? "Get into the homes and work with parents and get them to start reading to their kids, from the day they were born to the first day of school. Anything less than that and they're not ready for school. And if they're not ready, the gap is going to get bigger and bigger."

St. Louis Still Lags

St. Louis' new superintendent, Kelvin Adams, has a way to go in shoring up city schools. Students at high-achieving St. Louis public schools, such as Metro and Kennard Classical Junior Academy, continue to stand out on the MAP test. But older, low performing schools, such as Vashon, remain close to the bottom. Seven 7 percent of Vashons students were proficient in science, 11 percent proficient in math and 26 percent proficient in communication arts on the latest state achievement test.

Even so, St. Louis school officials are hopeful that the district can close the achievement gap. Adams (right) points to initiatives for training principals better and giving parents a larger stake in the schools. He adds, however, that the gap won't close much until the district does more to reduce its absenteeism and dropout rates. The graduation rate for St. Louis public high schools is below 50 percent; 23 percent drop out; and fewer than 40 percent of those who graduate attend college.

Rick Sullivan, head of the St. Louis Public School District's Special Administrative Board, remains as hopeful as his superintendent, saying the board has focused on expanding after-school and pre-kindergarten programs, among others, to boost achievement and close the gap.

Black Leadership Roundtable

The Black Leadership Roundtable has played a major role in trying to close the achievement gap. Years ago, it persuaded each area school district to pay more attention to the problem and explain in written comments what they are doing to address it.

Gwendolyn D. Packnett, head of the Roundtable's Education Committee, says the group feels strongly that the gap can be closed through several steps. These include hiring good, high-quality teachers, putting principals at the top of instructional leadership at schools, using more technology in classrooms and, above all, making sure every child has a "meaningful, long-term relationship with an empowered teacher."

This last point is essential, especially for children who might not have a supportive home environment, the Roundtable says. This view is shared by Joyce Roberts, former principal at Laclede School, one of the few St. Louis public schools recognized by the federal government for lifting academic achievement among impoverished students. Roberts believes strongly that teachers can make the difference. She says teachers at Laclede have established meaningful relationships with children and parents, which explains how Laclede became a high performing school.

Impact of desegregation on achievement

Amy Stuart Wells is the author of "Stepping Over the Color Line," a history of the St. Louis school desegregation program. A professor at Columbia University, Wells thinks policymakers in Washington and elsewhere are missing the point about the gap. Like many local teachers, she believes the No Child law doesn't give districts enough resources to reduce the gap.

Moreover, she isn't sure St. Louisans "appreciate what they have done" by opening the doors of St. Louis County public schools to city students in a regional response to school segregation. Wells notes that access to better schools in St. Louis County has been beneficial by, among other things, raising graduation rates, test scores and college attendance among the African-American students in the program.

"It's just common sense," she says. "Having spent time in city schools and suburban schools, (I think) it's pretty clear where kids have access to better education, where the expectations are higher and where the curriculum is stronger and more challenging."

But current policy, she says, "is very 'quote unquote' colorblind and denies that race matters any more, even though we have a lot of evidence that it does." She argues that policymakers have adopted a "colorblind" view that ignores how "multicultural schools are becoming" and have not focused on "how to prepare children for the 21st century in a society that looks like that."

The No Child law emphasizes "standards and accountability" with little focus on what she sees as the real issue in education: "the high concentration of poverty," and what that means for "how poor kids in poor schools perform on these tests." Wells says, "We don't talk about how race and social class create barriers for kids to succeed."

She says the gap might persist as long as policymakers focus solely on better test results without understanding "inequality in society and how it's reflected in the schools, whether it involves race or class." 

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.