Mathematics

New Research Shows Some Math Practices Help Minority Pupils

By Debra Viadero — December 07, 2004 3 min read
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With some changes in the curriculum, a study suggests, educators can wipe out the achievement disparities in math within their schools that leave black and Hispanic students trailing their non-Hispanic white peers.

Published Nov. 23 in the online journal Education Policy Analysis Archives,the study is based on federal testing data on 13,000 4th graders. It found, for instance, that African-American children fared better on the tests of mathematics when their teachers spent more time teaching specific topics such as measurement and estimation. Hispanic students scored higher when their classes included plenty of opportunities to collect and analyze data.

Harold H. Wenglinsky, the study’s author, said the findings could offer an important window into the vexing problem of achievement gaps between students of different racial and ethnic groups.

“Closing the Racial Achievement Gap: The Role of Reforming Instructional Practices” is available online from the Education Policy Analysis Archives. ()

“What this study says is that principals have it within their power to decrease achievement differentials by encouraging teachers to use techniques particularly geared to help minority students,” said Mr. Wenglinsky, an associate professor of education at Hunter College in New York City.

His findings are particularly timely in light of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. To pass muster under the 3-year-old law, schools have to show that test scores are improving for all groups of students on their campuses, including members of minority groups. Mr. Wenglinsky said his study shows that such goals may not be impossible to attain.

But other researchers cautioned last week that Mr. Wenglinsky may be too optimistic.

“We can’t really assume there’s cause yet,” said Sarah T. Lubienski, an associate education professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Sometimes higher-achieving people end up getting a different kind of instruction, and that can explain the correlation.”

Still, the study is among the first to try to identify on a large scale the classroom practices within a single subject that might contribute to differing achievement rates between groups of students.

Substantial Differences

Mr. Wenglinsky drew his data from the 2000 administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a congressionally mandated testing program that provides a national snapshot of student achievement. Besides gauging students’ test performance, the program surveys teachers on their classroom practices and beliefs.

Mr. Wenglinsky focused on 20 such practices in math, ranging from the time classes spent on instruction in the subject to the topics covered in class. He also took into account other characteristics that might lead to achievement differences, such as whether students were poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized lunches or whether their parents subscribed to newspapers and magazines.

Some classroom practices, Mr. Wenglinsky found, correlated with better test scores for all 4th graders, regardless of race or ethnicity. The more time students spent learning math, for example, the better they did on the tests. Students whose teachers emphasized geometry and routine mathematics exercises also scored higher than students in classes where those practices were emphasized less.

Harold H. Wenglinsky

Like measurement, estimation, and data analysis, other practices seemed to benefit particular groups of students disproportionately. African-American students fared worse than either Hispanic or white students, for example, in classes where teachers gave frequent tests.

Mr. Wenglinsky said the differences he found were substantial. Black or Hispanic children in classrooms that emphasized some of the practices he identified as key for their groups scored one-quarter to one-third of a grade level higher than their peers in other classes. Taken together, he said, such practices could erase the achievement differences between minority and white students in the same schools.

However, in a similar, not-yet-published study, Ms. Lubienski found smaller or nonexistent correlations between classroom practices and racial achievement gaps in NAEP scores.

She also noted that Mr. Wenglinsky’s findings address the “leftover gap” that occurs after accounting for socioeconomic differences between students, “so, in truth, there would still be huge gaps in schools by race.”

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