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Test scores defy racial unification

Look at the charts and graphs that tell where white children and black children attend school in Pinellas County and desegregation appears to be a rousing success.

After 24 years of busing, black children and white children study in the same classrooms, read from the same textbooks, eat in the same cafeterias and play on the same sports teams.

Then look at the charts and graphs that tell how well students are achieving and you can see that in some ways black and white children are still far apart.

Nearly a quarter of a century after the start of court-ordered busing in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, achievement among black children continues to lag. That's not to say there hasn't been progress; black students are scoring higher than before on many standardized tests.

But the gap in achievement between black and white children remains, and continues to frustrate educators.

The disparity came to the fore recently when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Kansas City School District could not be required to show gains in minority test scores as evidence of successful desegregation.

That ruling was met with a deep sigh of relief among educators locally and across the nation who feared they might be forced to guarantee not only equal opportunity but equal results.

So, now that the courts won't hold school districts' feet to the fire on the issue of minority achievement, the question remains: What of that persistent achievement gap?

"I think that with the court ruling, there's a danger of losing focus on the issue," said Jim Barrens, head organizer for Congregations United for Community Action, a multifaith, multiracial group representing more than 30 churches in the St. Petersburg area. "The things we've done in the last 25 years have helped, but we need to decide that it's important to focus on raising achievement levels now."

Though many agreed with the court that test scores are outside the scope of desegregation plans, they also thought gains in minority achievement would be a happy byproduct of successful desegregation.

"The plans were addressing racial isolation," said Gordon Foster, director of the Southeastern Desegregation Assistance Center, who assisted with the desegregation plans in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

"When you break that down," Foster said recently, "you would expect achievement will follow."

That hasn't happened. Certainly not as much as some hoped.

Comparing more often

If you want some encouraging test results regarding minority achievement, look at scores for the Scholastic Assessment Test, the well-known SAT often used in college admissions.

Between 1976 and 1994, verbal scores for black students nationally rose by 20 points _ the biggest increase for any racial or ethnic group. On the math portion, scores for black students rose by 34 points _ again a bigger gain than any other group.

But even with those gains, black test takers remain behind white ones. On the verbal section in 1994, black students as a group scored 91 points lower than whites. On the math portion, the gap was 127 points.

In Pinellas County, some of the most frustrating test scores are the results in recent years on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, a national test given to several grade levels.

Once again, black students' scores have improved over time. So have white students' scores. But with the rising and leveling of scores over time, one thing remained constant: the gap.

The persistent gap is well documented, and it is no surprise to educators.

"We're testing more and comparing more than we ever used to," said Catherine Fleeger, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the Pinellas schools. "We're paying more attention to it than we ever have."

Fleeger and Pinellas Superintendent Howard Hinesley said that although they kept an eye on the desegregation case before the Supreme Court, the ruling has no effect on efforts to raise achievement levels.

"Regardless of the way that court decision went, we have a responsibility as educators to do something about this," Fleeger said.

Lots of theories

In Kansas City, in Tampa and in St. Petersburg, there are no easy solutions. On the other hand, possible explanations abound.

One theory says that after so many years of segregation, and the lesser quality textbooks and facilities that came with it, black students still are playing catch-up.

Many educators believe that poverty, not race, is the key.

"There are many variables that affect learning that are outside the influence of the schools," Hinesley said. "I think we should be held accountable for the variables that we do have control over. But there are lots of other variables that we can't control."

Hinesley listed some of the variables he was talking about: poverty, mobility, the education level of the child's parents. If those are the key factors, then early intervention in a child's life becomes more and more important, Hinesley said.

"We cannot guarantee that all children are going to succeed," said John Miliziano, special assistant to the superintendent of the Hillsborough schools. "Many children are poor. Many are disadvantaged. That doesn't mean they can't achieve. We want to help them achieve. But we can't guarantee that."

A result of racism?

Barrens believes educators downplay the race factor.

His group of congregations in the St. Petersburg area has clashed with Pinellas school officials over the issue of minority achievement.

"In our institutions and in ourselves, there is racism," Barrens said, adding that sometimes teachers have different expectations for minority children. "We need to acknowledge that and the role it plays and move on from there."

Congregations United made some specific recommendations to the school district in an effort to change the way children are taught. The group suggested a move toward "direct instruction," a teaching method characterized by repetition and regular interaction between pupil and teacher.

The teaching method could be used in some schools but has not been widely embraced in Pinellas County.

Fleeger explained: "Schools can use some of those techniques. We're not going to mandate that every school try the same things."

Barrens said school districts should focus on raising minority achievement by changing curricula and bringing more minorities into positions of influence in the schools. In short, Barrens said, the schools should devote to this issue the kind of time and energy it has devoted to desegregation.

Gordon Foster, the man who helped fashion the desegregation plans in both Hillsborough and Pinellas, agreed.

"The desegregation plans were concerned with only those things you can count," Foster said. "The movement of students and teachers is what the original issue was about. Now desegregation has just about run its course.

"When you talk about achievement, there's no way a court can really deal with that. The fact of whether it's legal or illegal is secondary. Achievement and learning is what school is all about."