Examining Race and Demography

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Quality Counts focuses on what states can do to raise the achievement of all students. Stress the word "all." Raising standards, improving teaching, and creating better schools are only the first steps. States also must ensure that all children have access to a demanding curriculum, high-quality instruction, and nourishing classrooms.

Last month, a revealing report from the Education Trust underlined just how far states have to go to fulfill their obligation to all students. The Washington-based nonprofit organization directs its efforts toward closing the performance gap between children from poor and minority families and their more advantaged peers.

It found that after decades of progress, the achievement gap between white and minority students is widening again.

Between 1970 and 1988, minority students made striking gains in academic performance, while the achievement of white students remained flat.

During that time, the difference in performance between white and African-American students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress-which tests a representative sample of students nationwide--narrowed by about one-half. The gap between white and Hispanic students closed by one-third.

But beginning in 1988, this progress stopped. And in some subjects at some grades the gap began to yawn once more. Today, African-American, Hispanic, and American Indian students still perform well below other students in all subjects at all grade levels tested. In some cases, the gap has widened because the scores of minority students have declined; in other cases, the performance of white students has improved, while the performance of minority students has remained relatively stable.

"The fact that progress in minority achievement has stopped at a time when minorities comprise a growing portion of the student population should sound a wake-up call to the whole country," the Education Trust says in its report, Education Watch: The 1996 Education Trust State and National Data Book. "For while virtually all minority students master basic skills by age 17, disproportionately few master the higher-level skills they need to assume productive roles in society."

Researchers attribute the dramatic gains of the 1970 and early 1980s, in part, to changes in family characteristics and demographics. In particular, more black parents were better educated, had fewer children, and were less likely to live in poverty by the late 1970s. And all of these characteristics are strongly correlated with higher test scores.

But David Grissmer, a senior research scientist at the RAND Corp., argues that changing family characteristics alone cannot explain the large gains made by minority students. He calculates that changes in families accounted for only about a third of the total gain.

"Teachers and schools with large numbers of minority students may have been responsible for the most significant gains in test scores over the past 20 years," he suggests.

Massive desegregration of the schools, federal programs focused on boosting the basic reading and mathematics skills of disadvantaged students, and increased public spending on education all may have contributed to the academic progress of minority children.

The problem now, says the Education Trust report, is one of will. Experiences from real schools show that poor and minority students can excel if they are taught at high levels. "But most schools don't teach all students at the same high level," the report says. "In fact, we have constructed an educational system so full of inequities that it actually exacerbates the challenges of race and poverty, rather than ameliorates them. Simply put, we take students who have less to begin with and give them less in school, too."

The Education Trust report documents the following disparities:

  • Poor and minority students are less likely to be in classes with teachers who at least minored in their fields. In the 1990-91 school year, for example, only 42% of math classes in high schools with majority-minority enrollments were taught by teachers who were math majors. By comparison, in high schools with few minority students- less than 15% of enrollment- 69% of math classes were taught by math majors. More than two-thirds of Mexican-American and Hispanic students attend predominantly minority schools.
  • In schools where more than 30% of the students are poor, 59% of teachers report that they lack sufficient books and other reading resources. By contrast, only 16% of teachers in more affluent schools report such shortages.
  • Poor and minority students are more likely to be taught a low-level curriculum with low standards for performance. Only one in four students from low-income families is placed in a college-preparatory sequence of courses. In contrast, poor and minority students are overrepresented in less challenging general and vocational education programs.
  • Roughly 55 out of every 100 white and Asian students complete Algebra 2 and geometry. Only 35% of Mexican-American and American Indian seniors take this math. Although one in four white seniors takes physics, only one in six black seniors and one in seven Hispanic seniors completes this course. Some states provide disadvantaged students with better teachers and a more challenging curriculum than others do, the report says. For example:
  • In Tennessee, 23% of public K-12 students were black in 1992, and 24% of students in Advanced Placement mathematics and science courses were black. By contrast, in Virginia, 26% of public K-12 students were black, but only 7% of students in AP math and science courses were black.
  • In New York state in 1992, 20% of public K-12 students were Mexican-Americans, and 20% of students in gifted-and-talented programs were black. In Mississippi, 51% of public K- 12 students were black, but Mexican-Americans made up only 7% of those in gifted-and-talented programs.

Poor and minority students also achieve significantly more in some states than in others.

Mr. Grissmer calls these "value added" states because their students perform better on national assessments than their family and demographic characteristics would predict.

Take the case of Texas and California. Both states have a similar percentage of poor and black students. And Texas has a higher percentage of Hispanic students.

Yet on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, poor and minority students in Texas perform significantly better than similar students in California.

For example, in Texas, 44% of 4th graders in disadvantaged urban schools performed at the "basic" level or above on the 1992 NAEP math assessment, compared with only 27% in California.

Hispanic 4th graders also fared significantly better in Texas than in California. On the 1994 AEP reading assessment, about one-third of the students tested in both states were Hispanic. But in Texas, 41% read at the "basic" level or above; in California, only 22% did so.

Mr. Grissmer speculates that one reason for the difference may be the investment Texas has made in reducing class sizes in the early grades. About 90% of Texas' elementary teachers now have fewer than 25 children. Until this year, that was true for only 7% of California's elementary teachers.

The point is that while states cannot control the demographic or family characteristics of their students, some states do a much better job providing a decent education to all of their students than others do. When it comes to education, quality counts--for all children. And states should be held accountable for how well all students perform.

Vol. 16, Issue 17S, Page 10-11

Published in Print: January 22, 1997, as Examining Race and Demography
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