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Article of Interest - Education

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Bridges4Kids LogoEfforts 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 statewide.

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 other children.

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.

"It's working."


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