DC Public School Test Scores Better, But Still Dismal For Disadvantaged Kids

October 19, 2009

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof calls education reform “the central front in the war on poverty, the civil rights issue of our time.” The poverty part reflects the tried-and-true view that a good education will do more to lift a person out of poverty than safety net programs. The civil rights part refers to our separate and unequal schools.

From that perspective, let’s take a look at the recently-reported improvement in the math scores of D.C. public school students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. These scores are key indicators because NAEP is an impartial body, and its tests are uniform nationwide and consistent over time.

First, the good news:

  • Overall average scores for both fourth and eighth graders increased–up 5 points and 6 points respectively since 2007.
  • Longer-term increases were much greater–up 26 points for fourth graders and 19 points for eighth graders since 1992 (the earliest date reported for both grade levels).
  • For the first time since 1992, more than 50% of D.C. fourth graders scored at or above basic level, i.e., demonstrated “partial mastery of the prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work” at grade level.

Now the rest:

  • Both fourth and eighth grade scores were lowest in the nation. They were 20 points below the national average for fourth graders and 28 points below the national average for eighth graders.
  • Forty-four percent of fourth graders and 60% of eighth graders scored below basic level, as compared to 19% of fourth graders and 29% of eighth graders nationwide.

What these overall figures don’t show are the continuing very large race/ethnicity gaps. At the fourth grade level (the only one for which comparative figures are available):

  • Ninety-nine percent of white students scored at or above basic level, while only 50% of black students and 70% of Hispanic students did.
  • Eighty-one percent of white students scored at proficiency level or above, as compared to 9% of black students and 18% of Hispanic students.
  • Black students scored, on average, 57 points lower than white students–a gain of just 5 points since 1992.
  • Hispanic students narrowed the gap by 13 points, but their average score was still 43 points lower than the average white student score.

So what does all this have to do with poverty? Well, consider that:

  • Fourth graders who were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches, i.e. at or below 185% of the federal poverty line, averaged 31 points lower than other fourth graders.
  • Only 48% of them scored at or above basic level, as compared to 81% of fourth graders from higher-income families.
  • For eighth graders, the score gap was 24 points, and only 34% of those eligible for free or reduced-price lunches score at or above basic level.
  • Now look at the 2008 poverty rates–three and half times greater for blacks and two and half times greater for Hispanics than for non-Hispanic whites.

So it looks as if the large, racially-linked income gap in the District is playing itself out in students’ mastery of one of the major skill sets decent-paying jobs require.

Some of this probably has to do with difference in the quality of education that children in high-income and low-income neighborhoods receive. But part of it probably also has to do with impacts of poverty itself–instability, food insecurity, ill-health, over-stressed and/or absent parents, etc.

Schools can’t do anything about parental income. But D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s got work cut out for her to ensure that another generation of disadvantaged children aren’t “cemented into an underclass” by schools that leave so many children so far behind.


What’s the Future for Black Kids In Our Public Schools?

July 15, 2009

President Obama has come out with a “cradle to career” plan to overhaul our public education system. It’s supposed to prepare all Americans to enroll in at least one year of college or job training after high school.

To get there, the President proposes some investments in early childhood education and more generous financial assistance for college students. But the core of the plan is fairly conventional–raise standards, reward good teachers and fire bad ones, support the expansion of charter schools, etc.

No doubt something must be done. Our schools aren’t preparing enough young people for the emerging economy–jobs that call for specialized knowledge, high-level technical skills and the capacity to keep learning over time.

Like the current employment situation, this is not an equal opportunity problem. The large race gaps in employment and earnings are mirrored in measures of student performance. The most telling, I think, are the National Assessment of Education Progress scores because they reflect consistent, impartial assessments across the country and over time.

NAEP scores for black students have improved since the early 70’s. But scores for white students have improved too. So the gaps are still there, though not as wide. And we’re not seeing steady progress. All the gaps were narrower in the late 80’s, except for 4th grade reading scores.

What concerns me more than the gaps are what the scores themselves mean. According to the Children’s Defense Fund’s analysis:

  • 86% of black public school 4th graders can’t read at grade level, and 85% can’t do grade-level math.
  • By the 12th grade, 2% more black students can read at grade level, but 94% can’t do grade-level math.

By then, says the Economic Policy Institute, a quarter of black students have dropped out. So we’ve got to assume that competency in these most basic skills is even lower for the whole age group.

How will these students successfully complete at least a year of postsecondary education or high-level skills training? Some short-shot remedial work on the side can’t compensate for what they’re supposed to have mastered during twelve years in the classroom.

No Child Left Behind was supposed to address the race/ethnicity gap. It obviously hasn’t. And, frankly, I doubt that tinkering around with standards, incentives and penalties will. Because, as everyone admits (well, just about everyone), there’s only so much the schools can do.

My hunch is that we’ll need an approach that addresses the entwined legacies of race discrimination, poverty and education holistically and begins when children are born–or earlier. Many have mentioned the Harlem Children’s Project as a model.

Scaling this project would be a tall order. And it’s certainly better to go at the issues piecemeal than wait till we’ve got a program that gets at them all. But we do need to focus on the connections–and the sooner the better.


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