When Minority Test Scores Drop

A District Should Look Inward for Answers

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In Maryland last summer, when the Montgomery County public schools released the district's SAT score to the public, scores for African-American students were found to have dropped by a whopping 21 point, falling from a composite core of 940 in 1995 to 919 in 1996. No other racial or ethnic group experienced such a significant decline.

When asked why, every administrator, from the superintendent on down, was clueless. No explanations, no hypotheses, no insights. Cluelessness did not, however, stop the school system from singling out six high schools for criticism because their scores went down the most. Nor did it prevent the district from sending "SAT SWAT Teams" to those six high schools with the specific mission of jacking up the fallen scores.

By focusing on the drop in SAT I: Reasoning Test scores, the district leadership may be stuck on the wrong issue. Any drop in test scores, once analyzed, should be reason for concern, but what scares us more is the overall, continuing, and growing gap in achievement based on race.

There are 21 high school in the county. Eight of them enroll more than two-thirds of the black student at the high school level. In those eight schools, a mere 18 percent of the black graduates from the class of 1995 scored higher than the SAT average for all students nationwide. And barely 40 percent scored higher than the SAT average for black students nationwide. The gap in the percentage of blacks, whites, and Latino scoring 1,000 points or higher on their combined SAT score has remained unchanged for the past six years (44 percent of whites, 13 percent of blacks, and 11 percent of Latinos). On measures such as the district's own criterion-referenced tests and the state of Maryland's performance assessments, black students consistently score at or near the bottom of the score distribution. This persistent gap in achievement based on race is threatening to become a permanent part of the landscape, even if the one-year drop in SAT scores turns out to be a one-year aberration.

The two of us claim no special corner on the truth; nevertheless, we believe the recent drop in black SAT scores in our affluent suburban district is not an isolated event, and is directly tied to how the district conducts the business of schooling. We highlight below four ways of doing business that we feel particularly hurt the performance of black students. It goes without saying that these actions probably hurt all students, but it is clear to us that the hurt is not equally distributed.

  • Hey dummy--it's the curriculum. Over the past decade, with the threat of white flight from schools with increasing minority populations, most of our high schools have become schools within schools. Although the student populations of many of our high schools are ethnically and socioeconomically diverse, the classes in which our students are taught are becoming increasingly homogeneous. Honors classes are overwhelmingly white and Asian-American, while the less academically rigorous classes are increasingly black and Latino. The data on the number of honors credits earned by the class of 1995 support this observation; white and Asian students earned significantly more credits than their black and Latino counterparts. It is no surprise to us that segments of the student population who find themselves disproportionately "placed" out of the honors "track" end up less well prepared for the SAT. In short, those who perform the best on the SAT are those students who also earn the most curriculum points (honors credits).
  • Class-size increases don't help. In its fiscal 1991 budget proposals, the school system had this to say about class size: "Research on the effects of class size on student achievement shows that both achievement and teacher and parent satisfaction increase if class size is significantly reduced." Unfortunately, the mixed research on the impact of small increases or decreases in class size has lessened the commitment within the district to lowering class size significantly. But the research on one point is clear: Even small increases or decreases in class size seem to have an impact on the academic achievement of minority students and those most in need of individual help. Over the past five years, class size has increased significantly, and just last year class size was increased by one student across the board. In 1991, our board of education was entertaining proposals to increase spending to reduce class size. For example, more than $600,000 was on the table to reduce elementary school class sizes below 23.7 students. Now, with no real commitment on the table to control class sizes, elementary class size has crept slowly up above 25.1 students.
  • Teacher training disappears. At a time when teaching a diverse student population is more difficult, teachers in our district are left more on their own to develop teaching strategies. We look back to a time when the district invested in training (although far too little even then) in multiculturalism, in cooperative learning, in teaching strategies tailored to new curriculum whenever new curriculum was implemented. When teachers feel less prepared, they teach to those most receptive to their style of teaching. It should be no surprise that students whose backgrounds coincide less with what teacher know and feel comfortable with will suffer in times of austerity, when teachers get less training and support. We can't ask teachers to undertake "mission impossible" (close the achievement gap between blacks and Latino and white and Asians) without giving those teachers the necessary personal and professional tools acquired through regular training experiences.
  • Doing more with less. A decline in per-pupil spending has caused the virtual elimination of programs designed to have an impact on minority and disadvantaged populations. A mere five years ago, the district employed 21 reading teachers at the senior high level. Today, there are no high school reading teachers. And at the lower school level, the number of reading teachers has not kept pace with our growing student population. In 1991, Montgomery County employed 126 reading teacher in its elementary and middle schools. In 1997, the number climbed to 136, representing an 8 percent increase in staffing. But during this same period, the number of students enrolled at the elementary and middle schools increased by nearly 20 percent.

Neither of us can remember a time when the Montgomery County, Md., schools didn't have a special effort under way to address the academic needs of African-American students (the Black Action Steps in the 1970s, Priority 2 in the 1980s, Success for Every Student in the 1990s). At the beginning of this decade, the district was sinking nearly $1 million annually into programs and grants to individual schools to improve minority achievement. Activity buses for after-school programs for minority youngsters got a budget line item of $13,000. Not any more. A quick review of the current budget identifies less than $300,000 spent on these types of programs. Money and staff lead to results, and a shift away from these priorities brings consequences. The notion that we are doing more with less has become more myth than reality.

We don't want to believe it, but we think our district, one of the wealthiest in the nation, is headed for even rougher times. We see a school system slowly becoming one with clearly defined "good schools" and "bad schools." This division falls out along racial lines. Socioeconomic status matters, but we can't escape skin color or the realities associated with it. Like clockwork, black and brown kids come in in last place or close to the bottom when it comes to academic achievement. Changing that reality starts with an honest assessment of where all kids are and what resources are needed to improve their lot.

Clearly, now is not the time for our county or any other to use "downsizing" or "tax revolts" as convenient excuses for not investing in its black and brown youngsters. As Gary Orfield and Susan Eaton suggest in their 1996 book Dismantling Desegregation, school systems like Montgomery County, which have abundant resources to devise and implement policies for integrated education, should be pressed hard to do so before racial, ethnic, and economic divisions become even more deeply entrenched.

Vol. 16, Issue 19, Page 34

Published in Print: February 5, 1997, as When Minority Test Scores Drop
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