At school, race gap widens again
After decades of progress, the gap in test scores between black and white students has been growing again in 1990s.
The march toward parity between blacks and whites in education has advanced significantly in the United States during the last third of the 20th century.Skip to next paragraph
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But, in a sobering new finding, it's become clear that overall progress in closing the education gap came to a halt a decade ago - and in fact has been widening since the late 1980s.
"The racial gap in academic achievement is a national emergency," says Abigail Thernstrom, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York, who is working on a new book on racial disparities.
Results of a new study show that racial achievement gaps are not as large as they were 30 years ago, before the federal government targeted billions to improve educational opportunities for minority students. And there's clear evidence that schools are succeeding in bringing all groups of students up to a minimal, basic level of skills, such as the ability to add, subtract, and make sense of a simple paragraph.
But nearly all the reduction in racial gaps took place before 1988. Since then, progress for minorities in math, science, and reading has faltered. "Another way to look at the data is that the average scores for 17-year-old black students in reading and math are about the same as the averages for 13-year-old whites," says Michael Nettles, vice chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress is the most respected and comprehensive national test. The 1999 NAEP Trends in Academic Progress report, released yesterday, measures the progress of nine-, 13-, and 17-year-olds in reading, mathematics, and science since the early 1970s.
Competence in basic skills does not ensure that all students will have the higher skills they need to succeed in college or the 21st-century workforce. By 2020, the majority of US workers will be among those groups now labeled minorities.
"The data released [yesterday] is disappointing - especially for students of color and their parents - but hardly surprising," says Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that works on school improvement.
Lack of political will
"Over the last decade too few states, school districts, and schools have done the work that it takes to close the gap," she adds. "And the federal government has turned a blind eye to the gap and to the students who most need its help by failing to require gap closing as a condition of receipt of federal funds."
In fact, a consensus is emerging across the political spectrum on ways to solve this problem. These include making sure all students have access to quality teachers and a high-powered curriculum.
"It's clear that the nation needs a major new targeted initiative to improve reading. The time for feel-good reading programs has clearly ended," says Michael Casserly, executive director of the Washington-based Council of Great City Schools.
A solution also includes coming to terms with cultural factors that are impeding the progress of minority children.
"In the Information Age, education unlocks the door to the economic mainstream. Lousy education leads to economic apartheid," said Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League at the group's annual conference last month.
"Solving the problem is not rocket science. It's facing the facts about what these kids need and running with it," says Ms. Thernstrom.
A crucial first step is finding the political will to confront the issue squarely. Only a handful of states currently focus on the problem by disaggregating student scores by race and income.