Monday, October 6, 2008

U.S. Schools Failing Bright African-American Kids

In general, I'm not a huge fan of all the attention paid to the so-called "racial achievement gap" in test scores because I think it obscures the fact that even the white and Asian kids aren't doing so hot. On the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the average scores for white students fell below grade-level proficiency for both reading and math in the 4th and 8th grades. I'd like to see more of a focus on raising achievement levels for *ALL* students regardless of race. If significant progress was made in raising test scores for all groups, then everyone would be better off even if the gap between the groups remained the same size. A rising tide lifting all boats, so to speak.

That said, I was surprised and dismayed to read on the "Eduwonkette" blog about new research from Professor Sean Reardon of Stanford on the size of racial achievement gaps between African-American and white students who entered kindergarten at high vs. low levels of ability. Dr. Reardon found that African-American students who entered kindergarten at the 84th percentile of ability in reading and math fell behind similar-ability white students twice as fast by fifth grade as African-American students who entered at the 16th percentile of ability. By 5th grade, the typical African-American student who had entered kindergarten at the 84th percentile was only scoring the same as whites in the 55th percentile.

This finding is important because it means the problem is something in the child's environment causing him/her to underachieve compared to his/her potential. Dr. Reardon does not go into detail in his paper about what that might be, but mentions 3 possibilities:

(1) high achieving black students encounter less challenging curriculum and instruction and attend schools with fewer resources.

(2) high achieving black students are subject to different sets of teacher expectations and behaviors than similarly high achieving white students.

(3) high achieving black students have less access to out-of-school enrichment than high achieving white students.

Another couple possible contributing factors that Dr. Reardon does not mention include:

(4) whether high-achieving blacks face greater anti-intellectual peer pressure than high-achieving whites.

(5) whether high-achieving blacks have fewer positive role models both in their communities and in pop culture than high-achieving whites.

It is interesting to note that studies of homeschooled students do not show a significant racial achievement gap in test scores. Whatever is causing bright African-American students enrolled in traditional government-run schools to fall behind their white peers is not an issue for homeschoolers.

We need to do further studies to determine the cause(s) of this type of underachievement and figure out a way to remedy them for the children whose families are unable or unwilling to homeschool.

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