Monday, September 10, 2007

SAT Achievement Gap

Both major Maryland dailies are reporting on a story that shows an achievement gap on the Standardized tests among blacks, even in the suburbs. The Washington Post notes:
SAT scores at the Washington region's top high schools show an achievement gap between blacks and the rest of the student population -- a gap that is often masked by the overall performance of the schools.

White students in the spring graduating class of Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda -- the top performer in Montgomery County -- averaged 1893 out of a possible 2400 points on the SAT. The 13 black students tested averaged 1578, more than 300 points lower.

At Yorktown, Arlington County's leader, white students averaged 1804 on the SAT; black students averaged 1470. Black students at Severna Park High, the top performer in Anne Arundel County, averaged 1336, while white students' average was 1646.
School officials assert that part of the reason for the dispartity is that black students the level of preparation for the SAT.
"There are differences in preparation that will take years to erase," said Wayne Camara, the College Board's vice president for research.

In Montgomery, for instance, 65 percent of all white 2006 graduates took at least one Advanced Placement exam. The corresponding figure for blacks: 27 percent.

Recruiting black and Hispanic students into advanced math classes has been a top goal of Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast since he took the job in 1999. From 2001 to 2006, the share of the county's black students taking accelerated math in the sixth grade rose from 15 percent to 22 percent. Black student SAT scores should rise, Weast said, when those students reach high school.

"It's all about taking the right courses," Weast said. "And that's been particularly important for the Hispanics and the African Americans, because historically, they have not been in the right courses."
Assuming that the preparation and types of classes that are taken play a role, the school systems may be on the right track. Students with a solid grounding in math, specifically algebra and geometry (often tested on the SAT), English and writing skills will do well on the SAT, those without that background won't, it really is as simple as that. But the students discussed in the Washington Post article are enrolled in some of the area's best public schools, where there is an atmosphere geared toward college so that environment is not the problem.

However, some parents are learning the lesson that good education begins with the home environment.
Charisse Eubanks, mother of two black Churchill students, said it should be obvious to parents that sending their children to a top school is not enough. Parents must learn the system: enroll their children in advanced courses, see that they get good grades, take the right tests and earn the right scores, and "aggressively" encourage performance.

"Education starts at home," Eubanks said. "And I think that far too often, that's where the ball is being dropped -- at home."

Other black parents agree.

"Simply attending a high-performing school doesn't guarantee success," said Bertra McGann, mother of two students at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, where 444 points separate the average score of black students from that of white students.

McGann said the gap is about more than race: Even at affluent schools, it's about differences in family income, education and class.

Black students who score poorly on such measures as the SAT might have parents who "lack the capacity to guide and prepare the students for the college admissions process and also the college preparation process," she said. If those students "can be convinced of the link between a college education and the quality of life, then I think we could see the achievement gap narrow."
Meanwhile in the Baltimore suburbs, school officials and parents are coming to grips with the same facts in a different context, namely the Maryland high school assessments, a series of tests that the class of 2009 must pass in order to graduate.
An alarming pattern of failure is surfacing: Minority students, especially African-Americans, are struggling to pass the exams in the suburban classrooms their families had hoped would provide a better education.

"It is a wake-up call to African-Americans in Maryland," said Dunbar Brooks, president of the state school board and former president of the Baltimore County school board. "For many African-Americans, the mere fact that your child attends a suburban school district does not make academic achievement automatic."
Baltimore school officials and community activist note how far out of alignment the test scores are with the the community at large, which is fairly well educated.
Critics and activists in Baltimore County see the results in some schools, such as ultramodern New Town High in Owings Mills, as grossly out-of-step with area demographics not related to race.

More than 90.5 percent of area residents have earned a high school diploma and 42.8 percent have at least a bachelor's degree, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and median household income is $53,000.

"It's inexcusable," said Ella White Campbell, a retired city educator and executive director of the Liberty Road Community Council. "You can't say it's income that's the problem. And education levels are very high. ... The disconnect is in the fact that you have an educated community that has not realized kids are not getting the basics."
Of course, cultural perceptions come into play according to some:
Christopher Jencks, a professor of social policy at Harvard University who co-wrote a book about the achievement gap, notes other societal forces that can drag down black students at affluent schools. Black teens in well-heeled suburbs tend to socialize with children less affluent than themselves, to the detriment of their academic goals, he said. And black families might be less gripped by the "rat-race mentality" that sweeps up most parents in such suburbs as Potomac.

"Being behind is discouraging," he said. "And the easiest thing to do when you're behind is say, 'Oh well, who cares about this race anyway?' "
But there is a massive problem with this particular analysis posted by both the Post and the Sun, it is unfair to the black students. In the DC suburbs at least, the population of black students taking the SAT is pretty small, 19 in one school. It is very hard to draw comparisons between groups of students in that context, the sample size is just too small.

A better comparison would be to look not at black students versus white students on these tests only, but to look a little further. Where do the black students rank in terms of class ranking? Let us say that the majority of black students at that school are in the middle quintile (20 percent) of the school. Now compare their SAT of HSA scores against whites in the middle quintile. What is the achievement gap there? I will wager good money that the comparison of black students middle quintile is much closer to the middle quintile of white students, possibly even closing the gap altogether.

We need to compare apples to apples and we are not.

This is not to say that the phenonmenon is not cause for concern, because in theory at least, there should be black students in the top echelons of any high school, but there may not be (I don't know if there are or not). Any achievement gap is cause of concern, but let us make sure we have an achievement gap to begin with.

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