Pay Off to Close Achievement Gap
by Tim Simmons, The News Observer, October 27, 2003
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Encouraged by a
big jump in this year's test scores among minority students, a
growing number of educators say North Carolina could eliminate
the racial achievement gap in the next few years.
The predictions are based not on the current gap, which is still
quite large, but on the steady rise in the percentage of
children performing at grade level in nearly every school
district during the past few years.
"It's an aggressive timetable, and several things have to go
right," said state schools Superintendent Mike Ward. "But the
trends suggest we can do this."
Such predictions stand in stark contrast to previous attitudes
among teachers and principals. As recently as four years ago,
many were reluctant to even talk about the achievement gap.
But an unceasing focus on end-of-grade tests -- and more
important, the racial breakdown of those test results -- has
dramatically changed the conversation.
Teachers today are keenly aware of the gap, and principals know
precisely how students compare with one another. The awareness
is one reason the release of this year's scores was celebrated
The percentage of African-American students who passed the
state's reading and math tests in the spring of 2003 jumped 10
percentage points to 67 percent. American Indian and Hispanic
students also saw big increases, with passing rates above 70
percent for both groups.
Although black, Hispanic and American-Indian students posted the
largest gains, their success did not appear to come at the
expense of white and Asian children. The passing rates for those
two groups now exceed 90 percent in dozens of school districts.
"Even the most optimistic among us were amazed," said Ann
Denlinger, superintendent of Durham Public Schools. "It might
even help us reach our goal a year earlier than we predicted."
Raising the bar
Durham gained wide attention last year when Denlinger said its
schools would close the gap by 2007, an announcement that was
notable because no other school district was willing to publicly
discuss such timetables.
Scores in Durham were up across the board this year. More than
65 percent of Durham's black students and 59 percent of its
Hispanic students scored at grade level in both reading and
math. The passing rate for white students was 92 percent.
Denlinger said students are actually a bit ahead of her
predictions. In Wake County, where the achievement gap is
slightly smaller, schools Superintendent Bill McNeal is hearing
similar reports from his testing analysts.
"I don't think the big jump this year was a fluke, but our
growth over the past few years is more important," McNeal said.
"That's how you reach the goal."
But bringing children to grade level is only the first of many
goals in closing the gap. It also might prove to be the easiest.
Ward and others acknowledge that the percentage-at-grade-level
gauge is just one way of measuring the gap. By other measures,
such as actual scores on the end-of-year tests, white and Asian
students continue to show significantly higher achievement than
Minority gains in elementary and middle school also drop off
noticeably in core high school classes such as history, biology
and algebra. And the gap has actually increased in recent years
among seniors who take the SAT college entrance exam.
"We absolutely need to measure the gap in all those ways," Ward
said. "Ultimately, equity is about all children performing at
the same levels."
The easy gains
Ward thinks another year of solid gains will convince people
that the large increases posted this year are for real.
But a few school officials wonder if those gains are coming.
"I think we will continue to improve, but the gains are going to
get smaller and smaller," said Johnston County schools
Superintendent Jim Causby. "I think five years to close the gap
is just overly optimistic."
Johnston was among the first districts to set strict
accountability standards based on test scores. Causby said his
doubts about closing the gap come from that experience.
When the state rolled out its accountability program, known as
the ABCs of Public Education, teachers quickly understood the
immediate payoff of working with children who were just below
grade level. But after the grades of those students improved,
overall improvement leveled off.
Causby thinks the federal requirements of the No Child Left
Behind Act had a similar effect. The new law requires that test
scores be kept by race, family income, special education status
and the ability to speak English. If any group fails to meet a
minimum standard, the entire school is considered deficient.
"I think the schools looked at those groups, looked at the
students closest to grade level within those groups and focused
on those children," Causby said. "That's a good place to start,
but that's like taking the low-hanging fruit. It gets tougher
after the first pass."
The long haul
With an eye toward the future, school districts such as Wake and
Durham have invested countless hours and millions of dollars
into early literacy programs.
At Forest View Elementary in northern Durham County, that means
every available teacher, assistant and volunteer works every day
with small groups of students in kindergarten and first and
second grades. Their progress is assessed every week.
Depending on their age and ability, the students color letters,
read in groups, write in journals, practice handwriting or read
silently. The reading program is divided into 20 levels.
Children cannot graduate from kindergarten at less than a Level
2. No child below Level 10 will be promoted to second grade.
Teachers have some discretion on how to run their classrooms,
but the same materials and lesson plans are used in every
primary grade classroom in every school throughout the district.
Although different programs are used in other school districts,
the underlying philosophy remains the same. Start early, test
often, remain focused.
Denlinger, the Durham schools superintendent, is often asked
whether such an approach stifles creativity, pressures children
or is simply worth the effort.
She offers a single, short answer.
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