Left behind

Tuesday, October 28th, 2003

Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, authors of No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, point out a number of alarming facts in Left behind:

The student body of Cedarbrook Middle School in a Philadelphia suburb is one-third black, two-thirds white. The town has a very low poverty rate, good schools, and a long-established black middle class. But in an eighth-grade advanced algebra class that a reporter visited in June 2001, there was not a single black student. The class in which the teacher was explaining that the 2 in number 21 stands for 20, though, was 100 percent black. A few black students were taking accelerated English, but no whites were sitting in the English class that was learning to identify verbs.

The Cedarbrook picture is by no means unique. In fact, it is all too familiar. Here in Massachusetts, where the high school class of 2005 has begun the MCAS testing process, the gap is crystal clear. On the first try, 82 percent of white 10th-graders passed, and the figure for Asians was almost as high (77 percent). But the success rate for Hispanics was 42 percent and for blacks 47 percent. Across the nation, the glaring racial gap is between whites and Asians on the one hand, and blacks and Hispanics on the other.

An interesting counter-point they acknowledge:

True, the black high-school graduation rate has more than doubled since 1960, and blacks today attend college at a higher rate than whites did just two decades ago.

The numbers, Thernstrom and Thernstrom say, are “heartbreaking”:

  • On the nation’s most reliable tests, the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), the typical black or Hispanic student at age 17 is scoring less well than at least 80 percent of his or her white classmates. On average, these non-Asian minority students are four years behind whites and Asians. They are, in effect, finishing high school with a junior-high education.
  • In five of the seven subjects tested by NAEP, a majority of black 17-year-olds perform in the lowest category: Below Basic. In math the figure is almost seven out of 10; in science it is more than three out of four. A majority of black students do not have even a “partial” mastery of the “fundamental” knowledge and skills expected of students in the 12th grade. (Hispanic students at the end of high school do somewhat better than their black classmates, but they too are far behind their white and Asian peers.) Though approximately two-thirds of black and Hispanic students go on to college, a great many are clearly entering higher education unprepared for true college-level work.
  • The news is no better at the top of the scale. Nearly half of all whites and close to 40 percent of Asians in the 12th-grade rank in the top two NAEP categories — Proficient and Advanced — in reading. Less than one-fifth of blacks and one-quarter of Hispanics achieve those levels. In science and math, a mere 3 percent of blacks and 4 to 7 percent of Hispanics display Proficient or Advanced knowledge and skills at the end of high school, in contrast to 7 to 10 times as many whites and Asians. And at the very top, only 0.2 percent of black students perform at a level rated Advanced in math. The figure is 11 times higher for whites and 37 times higher for Asians. Again, Hispanic students are only slightly ahead of blacks.
  • Black students were even farther behind a quarter of a century ago, when NAEP data first became available. But the modest progress that occurred during the 1980s has largely come to an end, and there are some indications that the racial gap is widening. Thus, current trends offer no grounds for complacency.

The authors note too that social class (including parental income, education, and place of residence) only accounts for one-third of the racial difference between non-Asian minorities and whites.

The solution? Better schools. Yeah, great insight.

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