Equity & Diversity

Achievement Gap Widening, Study Reports

By Lynn Olson — December 04, 1996 5 min read

The achievement gap between white and minority students is widening again after decades of progress, warns a comprehensive analysis of the 50 states that is scheduled to be released this week.

“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 report by the Education Trust says. 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.

Relying primarily on existing data, researchers gathered for the first time information from a multitude of sources to present an unusually blunt picture of the ways individual states treat their neediest students.

“We want to provide honest data for local people to begin discussions in their own communities about what’s wrong and how to fix it,” Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, said in an interview. “Our silence as a profession about these numbers has let policymakers and others off the hook because we’ve allowed them to believe that these kids are doing as well as can be expected.”

The report ranks states and the District of Columbia on 17 critical indicators, from the test scores of students by race and ethnicity to the spending disparities between school districts.

It argues that states and communities should set the same high expectations for all their students, offer them an equally challenging curriculum, and sharpen their focus on the quality of teaching and the materials available to teachers.

Large Gap Remains

Between 1970 and 1988, the report notes, minority students made dramatic gains in achievement while the performance of white students remained relatively 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 Latino students closed by one-third.

But beginning in 1988, the progress stopped. And in some subjects and some grades the gap began to yawn once again.

Today, African-American, Latino, and Native American students perform well below whites in all subjects and at all grade levels.

Similar achievement gaps persist into college. A national assessment of adult literacy shows that black and Latino college graduates also perform well below their white peers.

But underachievement is not limited to poor and minority children, the report points out. The performance of most U.S. students falls well below the competency levels set by NAEP for students in each grade and subject.

‘Full of Inequities’

The report argues that poor and minority children are not performing as well as they could because the deck is stacked against them in too many states and districts.

“In fact,” it concludes, “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 report, Education Watch: The 1996 Education Trust State and National Data Book, documents the following disparities:

  • Poor and minority students are less likely than their more advantaged peers to be in classes taught by teachers who majored in their fields.

In the 1990-91 school year, for example, only 42 percent of math classes in high schools with more than 50 percent minority enrollments were taught by teachers who were math majors. By comparison, in high schools with few minority students--less than 15 percent of enrollment--69 percent of math classes were taught by math majors.

More than two-thirds of black and Latino students attend schools with predominantly minority enrollments.

  • In schools where more than 30 percent of the students are poor, 59 percent of teachers report that they lack sufficient books and other reading resources. Only 16 percent 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. Poor and minority students are overrepresented in less challenging general and vocational education programs.
  • Roughly 55 out of every 100 white and Asian-American students complete algebra II and geometry. Only 35 percent of African-American and Native American seniors take this math. Although one of every four white seniors takes physics, only one in six black seniors, and one in seven Latino seniors, completes this course.
  • Blacks complete high school at roughly the same rate as their white peers. About 83 percent of black Americans have earned a high school diploma or its equivalent by age 24. But only 60 percent of Latino students nationally earn a diploma.
  • Blacks are much less likely than whites to go to college. For every 100 white Americans, nearly 60 attend college and 25 earn a bachelor’s degree. Only 40 percent of blacks attend college, and just 12 percent earn a bachelor’s degree by age 30. Only one in 10 Latinos earns a degree by that age.

Raising Standards Helps

The Education Trust argues that the lack of explicit standards for American education contributes to such disparities. In the absence of national academic standards, there is wide variation in what schools and districts expect young people to learn. Typically, schools serving the poorest students have the lowest expectations.

The report cites several examples of schools and school systems that are proving that poor and minority youngsters can excel if they are taught at high levels.

“Fortunately, there are some schools and districts that are responding to the needs of their poor and minority students, not by lowering standards, but by accelerating learning,” it says.

Five years ago, for example, the Providence, R.I., district began requiring that all students take higher-level mathematics as part of the College Board’s Equity 2000 initiative. Today, 97 percent of Latino and African-American students there take algebra, compared with only 37 percent of black students and 27 percent of Hispanic students in 1991.

Some states provide disadvantaged students with better teachers and a more challenging curriculum than others do, the report says. For example:

  • In Tennessee, 23 percent of public K-12 students were black in 1992, and 24 percent of students in Advanced Placement mathematics and science courses were African-American. In Virginia, 26 percent of public K-12 students were black, but only 7 percent of students in A.P. mathematics and science courses were black.
  • In New York State in 1992, 20 percent of public K-12 students were African-Americans, and 20 percent of students in gifted-and-talented programs were black. In Mississippi, 51 percent of public K-12 students were black, but African-Americans made up only 7 percent of those in gifted-and-talented programs.

A version of this article appeared in the December 04, 1996 edition of Education Week as Achievement Gap Widening, Study Reports

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