1. Archive

Minding the gap

Published Sep. 10, 2005

Things finally seemed to be moving in the right direction. After years of wide, persistent gaps between the performance of black and white students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the 1970s saw the beginning of a turnaround. Christopher Jencks of Harvard University and Meredith Phillips of UCLA, editors of the 1998 book The Black-White Test Score Gap, noted that the reading gap between black and white 17-year-olds had narrowed more than 40 percent from 1971 to 1994 and that the math gap had also narrowed. In an editorial for Education Week, the researchers wrote, "Narrowing the test score gap would require continuous effort by both blacks and whites, and it would probably take more than one generation. But we think it can be done."

But test results released in September 2000 show very different trends from those that seemed apparent just a few years earlier. While overall scores have increased in reading and mathematics, the differences in scores for black and white students in virtually every NAEP subject area and for every age group are greater than they were in the late 1980s. Perhaps even more disturbing, these gaps seem to be getting wider each year. Even when researchers control for socioeconomic status, level of parental education, and other factors that contribute to scholastic achievement, the score gap between white and black students persists, and no one is really sure why.

Of course, theories abound. Some researchers blame low standards, a lack of resources, and what they consider to be less-skilled teachers in schools that serve large numbers of black students. Others cite a change from the emphasis on basic skill development, which helped to boost scores of the lowest performing students in the 1970s and 1980s, to one on higher order skills, for which students may be less well-prepared. Still other researchers insist that, despite controlled study, the effects of racism simply cannot be disentangled from the host of other economic and social factors that affect black students and their success in school.

But the question persists: How do we close the gap? And, increasingly, some networks of school districts are no longer looking for national guidance. They're tackling the problem on their own.

Frustrated by the persistence of the achievement gap in their districts, administrators and teachers have started to look for answers within the walls of their own schools. They're studying school records, disaggregating test score and grade data, interviewing students and teachers, administering questionnaires _ essentially, becoming researchers _ to identify exactly where problems exist and to design solutions.

"When you're really serious about closing the achievement gap, you have to be very deliberate in identifying what your problems are," says Thomas Fowler-Finn, superintendent of the Fort Wayne, Indiana, Community Schools. "You have to know what specific steps to take, and when you take them, you have to know if they make a difference."

Fort Wayne, a district of approximately 32,000 students, 26 percent of whom are black, is one of many schools that are now taking a close look at the achievement gap through a research-based approach. Rather than just focusing on test scores, however, Fort Wayne's plan involves looking at the gap _ and therefore the schools _ in a much broader context. School officials are also investigating black/white differences in discipline referral, dropping out, educational aspirations, and perceptions of the school climate.

Through student surveys, for example, Fowler-Finn says that district staff have discovered some key differences in the way black and white students experience school. Black students feel less connected to school and believe they have more negative relationships with their peers and with teachers than their white counterparts.

The good news, however, is that the gap in responses to the school climate questions has narrowed by about 60 percent in two years. Fowler-Finn attributes this success to several changes. The district has implemented diversity training for staff, developed school improvement plans with the input of representative groups across age and racial lines, and revised curriculum to include better representation of the cultural contributions of people of color. There are new mentoring programs as well as an orientation for high school freshmen called Straight Talk, in which students learn skills for making the transition to high school.

The Fort Wayne educator-researchers also found gaps in the way students perceive the role of discipline in their school lives. "There's a perception that if you do the same thing, you'll get a worse punishment if you're black," Fowler-Finn notes. The district has begun to track discipline reports and pinpoint patterns by changing certain variables in the equation, such as the personnel monitoring doorways, the locations where buses drop students off, and the consequences for behavioral infractions and whether these are consistent along racial lines. School staff have also reviewed their discipline codes, and the district has hired a full-time conflict mediator for each middle and high school.

All of these factors, Fowler-Finn believes, affect black students' perceptions about school and, in turn, their academic achievement. And, though the issues are still being studied and interventions are still being designed, some encouraging academic results have emerged. The dropout rate for black students was 10.4 percent in the 1993-94 school year. For the last school year, this rate had dropped to 2.6 percent, less than one percentage point away from the dropout rate for white students.

Score gaps on the state-mandated Indiana Statewide Test of Educational Proficiency have also begun to narrow. The score difference between black and white 8th-graders in Fort Wayne, for example, has narrowed by 2.8 percentage points for reading, 1.4 points for math, 1.0 point for language, and 1.5 points for the full battery of tests in the past three years. While those numbers may sound relatively modest, Fowler-Finn points out that this narrowing is significant because it has occurred in the context of healthy test score gains for both black and white students.

Based on his experiences, Fowler-Finn has concluded that closing the achievement gap requires a comprehensive approach to studying the overall school experience: "If it were just a matter of achievement, then your approach would be to only focus on improving teaching and curriculum. We've learned that that will not be adequate."

Dedicated networks

Fort Wayne is one of a growing number of school districts that are pooling their intellectual resources in an effort to find solutions to the achievement gap puzzle. Fowler-Finn is president of the Network for Equity in Student Achievement, a group of 15 larger urban school systems that share data, resources, and ideas with the ultimate goal of closing the racial gap and raising achievement for all students.

The network was inspired by another group of school districts with a similar mission but a different set of common characteristics: the Minority Student Achievement Network, which consists primarily of school districts in ethnically diverse suburban towns and small cities. Many MSAN member districts are located in university towns such as Ann Arbor, MI; Berkeley, CA; Cambridge, MA; and Madison, WI. The relative affluence of these communities means that member schools can study the achievement gap amid less interference from such factors as poverty and severe school underfunding. And, the location of the schools near major colleges and universities enables staff to work closely with key researchers in this field.

"The schools in our network share specific characteristics: a historical commitment to racial integration, a willingness to share the bad news about the gap in achievement, and a commitment to eliminating that gap . . . and significant financial and educational resources," says MSAN member Laura Cooper, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Evanston Township (Illinois) High School. "We're under no illusions that we'll have eliminated this gap in six months. We know this work is very complex. We're not looking for just one answer."

Ronald Ferguson, an associate professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, works with MSAN and has studied the Shaker Heights (Ohio) public schools for several years. Just as in Fort Wayne, Shaker Heights educators are finding out that understanding minority students' perceptions about school may be at least as important as monitoring their test scores. Ferguson has found that on most measures of effort and academic motivation, black students score as high as _ and sometimes higher than _ white students. He also notes, however, that there may be other factors that stand in the way of black students performing better in school.

According to surveys, black students in Shaker Heights spend as much time, and often more time, doing homework as their white peers, but they tend to complete their work less often. Ferguson speculates that "stereotype anxiety" may be a key factor in this failure to complete and pass in homework: "Students may think it's better to look like you're not trying than to look stupid. You really don't want to feed the stereotype of ignorance." Moreover, when asked what factors make students popular, white students are most likely to cite being outgoing and self-confident, whereas black students most often mention "acting tough."

"So, what teachers see are kids with this tough persona who don't hand in their homework," Ferguson says. "Black students are just as interested in school, but this was news to a number of teachers."

One of the most glaring disparities between black and white students is in their enrollment in Advanced Placement and other higher-level courses. Researchers like Ferguson have found that some teachers' expectations for black students are lower than they are for white students, and these factors affect tracking decisions as well as students' perceptions about their own abilities throughout their learning careers.

Joan Cone, an English teacher at El Cerrito High School in the San Francisco Bay area, has made closing this aspect of the gap a priority at her school and has used research techniques to get at the root of the problem. "I was interested in collecting data on how teachers and students co-construct low achievement," Cone says. "What I found was that students of color in 10th and 11th grade were not taking advantage of the choices they had."

Cone's findings have resulted in a restructuring of the English department at El Cerrito High. Rather than being tracked into English classes throughout high school, students are now heterogeneously grouped in grades nine and 10 and have a menu of electives from which to choose in the upper grades. The curriculum in some of these electives is strongly centered around literature by writers of color. In addition, Cone's department has opened up enrollment in the school's AP courses.

Now, more than 20 percent of the students in Cone's AP classes are African-American, and an additional 8 percent are Latino. While acknowledging that merely being placed in an AP course cannot completely reverse the damage caused by years of low tracking, Cone sees more students of color raising their academic aspirations. "There are kids taking AP now who would never be given a chance at other schools," she says. "Will they all pass the AP exam? Maybe not. But at least we didn't say that they couldn't."

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina have also seen dramatic increases in the number of African-American students taking higher-level courses. Some 26 percent of African-Americans in the class of 2000 were enrolled in at least one AP or international baccalaureate course, up from 21 percent the previous year and 14 percent for 1996. Overall, there were 974 blacks enrolled in AP courses last year, up from just 77 in the 1991-92 school year.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg is one of five North Carolina school districts that last year took on a special challenge from the state to raise test scores among six subgroups, including black students. Staff in schools where scores go up within each subgroup will receive cash bonuses. Charlotte-Mecklenburg is already making strong progress in closing gaps on statewide tests: black students' scores on the North Carolina End-of-Grade reading test have risen by 18 percentage points since 1995-96, and the gap between black and white students has narrowed by 9 percentage points.

Superintendent Eric Smith says the renewed effort to raise test scores has resulted in a districtwide focus on research. The district disaggregates test scores according to a number of factors, including race, and school officials have begun collecting data on the attributes of its highest and lowest performing schools. One of the major differences they have found between these two groups of schools is in teaching. The lower-performing schools tend to be staffed by teachers who have less experience, fewer advanced degrees, and higher absenteeism. The district is trying to help teachers earn their master's degrees and is revising staffing formulas to reduce the student/teacher ratio in schools where student are identified as having "high need."

A tall order

People calling for schools to take the lead in research on the achievement gap acknowledge that this is a tall order, given all of the day-to-day responsibilities educators face. "It's a challenge to do methodical research in schools," says Cooper of the Minority Student Achievement Network. "It's kind of like trying to change the tires on a car while you're driving down the highway."

Nevertheless, the unique characteristics of school cultures and student populations suggest that the most meaningful changes may depend on research that is locally driven. "So far, researchers have only done research that tells them what they already know: that there is a gap," says Pedro Noguera, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "What educators need is research on how to change their practices so that they can create the conditions that foster high minority achievement."

And creating these conditions may involve a lot more than just raising standards. Districts may need to conduct home-grown research on student attitudes, teacher satisfaction, class size, tracking, and a myriad of other factors before they understand what goes into _ and what can change _ student learning.

Up next:OPEN & SHUT