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"The Growing Education Gap,"

by Kati Haycock March/April 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

Two decades of progress in narrowing the achievement gap has ended. Our new report, Education Watch: The 1996 Education Trust State and National Data Book, finds that the gap separating low-income and minority students from other young Americans is growing once again. The study, which ranks the 50 states and the District of Columbia on 17 indicators of educational quality and equity, paints a disturbing portrait of student achievement - kindergarten through college. The report argues that the current effort to set uniformly high standards for all students, though critical, are by no means enough to close the gap once and for all.

The data presented in our report suggest that our educational system is so riddled with inequities that our schools and colleges actually exacerbate the effects of race and poverty. rather than ameliorate them. Students from low-income families and students of color are far more likely to attend schools with only minimal expectations for student performance, so they have much to gain from the new movement toward high standards for all. But schools attended by low-income students and students of color are also more likely than schools attended by other young Americans to have only meager cash resources, under-prepared teachers and the most watered down curriculum. Thus, an education improvement effort that simply rolls out high standards, without attention to other inequities, will leave most students of color and low-income students behind.

In 1990, schools with low poverty levels spent an average of $6565 per student, while those with higher poverty levels spent an average of $5173 per student. However, the way school dollars are spent is as important as the amount of funds allocated. Investing resources like well-educated teachers, up-to-date textbooks and challenging curricula are especially important.

Poor children and minority children do not get their fair share of such resources. For example, while 86% of science teachers in predominantly White schools are certified in their field, only 54% of science teachers in predominantly minority schools are so certified. In low-poverty schools, fewer than 1 in 5 English classes is taught by a teacher who does not even have a minor in English, while in high-poverty schools, approximately 1 in 3 courses is so taught. And the teachers in schools serving concentrations of poor and minority children were more than twice as likely to lack books and other instructional resources as teachers in low-poverty schools.

Our report also points out significant differences in what is taught to different groups of students. For example, students from poor families are much less likely to be placed in rigorous college preparatory classes and much more likely to be placed in watered down "general" or "vocational" courses. Similarly, African American and Latino students are less likely to be placed in courses that build high-level thinking skills, including Geometry, Algebra II and Chemistry. Even when the courses are named the same, the standards are lower. Indeed, students in high-poverty schools routinely receive "A's" for work that would receive a "C" in more affluent schools.

Minority youngsters learn less at every level. For example, among 4th graders, approximately 4 in every 10 White students are "proficient" in reading. However, only 1 in 11 African American 4th graders and 1 in 8 Latino 4th graders are proficient readers. In grade B, approximately 1 in 3 White students is proficient in mathematics, compared to 1 in 33 African Americans and I in 14 Latinos.

These inequities contribute to significant-differences in the educational success of different students. On the whole, African American and Latino students experience the least success. They graduate from high school, enter college and graduate from college at rates below other students. While about 25 of every 100 White young Americans obtain at least a Bachelor's Degree, among African Americans only 12 do so, and among Latinos, only 10 do so.

In the seventies and early eighties, there was considerable progress in narrowing the achievement gap between minority students and other students. Over the course of two decades, the gap between African Americans and Whites declined by about half, and the gap between Latinos and Whites declined by about one-third.

Between 1988 and 1990, though, that progress stopped. Since then, depending on grade level and subject, it has either remained the same or grown. For example, in 1973, African Americans scored 40 points below Whites on the 12th grade NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) mathematics exam. By 1990, that gap had narrowed to 21 points. Four years later, though, the gap had grown again to 27 points. Among 13 year olds, the gap between Latinos and Whites on the NAEP math exam stood at 35 points in 1973, 19 in 1986, and 25 in 1994. The trends were similar in reading.

Clearly, none of this is inevitable. Our report profiles several successful schools, school districts and colleges. Among them are Waitz Elementary School in Mission, TX, where more than 95% of the impoverished student body passes Texas' challenging Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test -a pass rate envied by affluent schools. We also cite recent gains in New York City in the number of 9th graders passing tough Regents' Math and Science Courses and the number of well-prepared students entering the City University of New York.

While in most states African Ameri-can children are severely under-represented in Advanced Placement (AP) math and science or Gifted and Talented courses, and over-represented in Special Education and suspensions, some states do better here, too. For example, African American youngsters in Ohio participate in AP and Gifted courses at slightly higher rates than do White students, and they are placed in Special Ed at about the same rate. Similarly, Latino youngsters in New York are placed in Gifted and Special Education programs at rates not appreciably different from those of other students.

Around the country, there are schools and colleges that are proving every day that poor and minority students absolutely can achieve at the same high levels as other students if they are taught to high levels. Our report urges states and communities to take the important steps to increase the performance of all students:

· set high educational standards,
· assure that all students get a challenging curriculum,
· make sure all children have expert teachers.

Kati Haycock Kati Haycock is Director of The Education Trust (1725 K St. NW, #200, Wash., DC 20006, 202/293-1217, E-mail: Vice Chair of PRRAC’s Board of Directors.

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