Falling SAT Scores, Widening Achievement Gap

Brian Resnick of The Atlantic looks past the College Board’s explanation of why SAT scores have fallen to their lowest level in decades. Unfortunately, Resnick does little to actually explain the achievement gap. This 2005 article from the Chicago Tribune is a start:

Test scores, poverty are entwined
Chicago Tribune; July 4, 2005
Jodi S. Cohen and Darnell Little, Tribune staff reporters

(Copyright 2005 by the Chicago Tribune)

More than any other group, middle-class black students show the greatest academic improvement when they aren’t trapped in high- poverty schools, according to a Tribune analysis of Illinois test scores.

In elementary schools where fewer than half the students are low- income, nearly 62 percent of middle-class black students passed last year’s state reading test. That’s nearly 12 percentage points higher than how they fared in predominantly poor schools. No other group of students — whites, Hispanics or low-income blacks — posted as great an improvement, the analysis showed.

But few black children have the option of attending a low- poverty school. In Illinois, three out of every four black students are enrolled in schools where most children are poor.

Educators say the high concentration of black students in poor schools is one of the biggest barriers to closing the stubborn gap in test scores between white and African-American students, an issue at the forefront of national education reforms.

Achieving that goal could require changing rigidly segregated housing patterns or school-district boundaries that isolate black students in poor schools, where they often are taught by less- experienced teachers, encounter lower expectations and watch many peers drop out.

“Anybody … who is with a lot of low-achieving students is likely to have their achievement pulled down,” said John Easton, director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago.

There are few middle-class black neighborhoods large enough to support an entire school, leaving most black families in the state, regardless of income, in schools with high percentages of low- income students. About 73 percent of the state’s black students last year attended predominantly low-income schools, compared with 10 percent of white students.

Not surprisingly, the trend extends beyond Illinois. Nationwide, more than 60 percent of black and Hispanic students attend high- poverty schools — where more than 50 percent of students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch — compared with 30 percent of Asians and 18 percent of whites, according to the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

When Hispanic students escape poor schools, they show similar improvement on the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests (ISAT), though less pronounced than their black peers. But experts believe many low-income Hispanic families do not sign up for the free and reduced-lunch program, which skews test results.

Low-income black students also see more success in low-poverty schools, although it’s less than the gains of their middle-class peers.

The Tribune has defined low-income students as those eligible for the lunch program, the only available indicator of a student’s economic status. A three-person household qualifies for the program if its total annual income is less than $30,000. For black households in Illinois, the median income is about $31,700.

Many experts believe that most high-poverty schools in Illinois have subpar test results in part because the schools lack resources to deal with the problems that accrue when poor children are clustered together.

These schools typically struggle with higher mobility rates and the difficulties that come when children have unstable home lives. Students may have untreated health issues such as asthma, behavioral problems and other challenges that can make it harder to learn for all children, even those from wealthier families.

Conversely, minority students in low-poverty schools are exposed to higher expectations from peers and teachers, less student and staff turnover, and greater academic competition, often pushed by parents determined to see them succeed, according to education experts.

“If you have a lot of kids from more highly educated families, and the kids come to school with more resources that contribute to the intellectual environment in the classroom, the more likely you are to have an environment more conducive to learning,” said William Julius Wilson, a sociology professor at Harvard University.

The link between a school’s poverty level and academic success could help explain why black students perform better when enrolled in majority white schools, where the poverty levels tend to be low.

For example, 49 percent of black elementary students enrolled in majority white schools passed reading tests, a result similar to the performance of blacks in low-poverty schools. Meanwhile, only 39 percent of black elementary students in majority black schools passed the same tests.

That’s about the passing rate for students in Lincoln Elementary School in south suburban Calumet City, where 86 percent of the school’s 1,000 students are low income. Principal Douglas Higgins said the high poverty rate leads to everything from untreated vision problems to low parental involvement and high student mobility.

Last school year, 105 students enrolled in his school midyear. In a class of 24 students, as few as three parents will show up for parent-teacher conferences.

Low teacher expectations have been a problem at Coles Elementary School on Chicago’s South Side, where nearly 80 percent of the students are low-income, Principal Larry Thomas said. Its middle- class students perform just as poorly as their low-income peers, with only about 37 percent passing last year’s reading tests.

Thomas said he pairs weaker teachers with “low-motivated” students, those who appear uninterested in learning, don’t participate in extracurricular activities and tend to bully students with better grades.

Thomas defended his practice. “You wouldn’t want to put an unmotivated teacher with a highly motivated group. They would regress,” he said.

Vickie Johnson, whose daughter Miche’le recently finished 7th grade at Coles, said teachers push her daughter to succeed, but that it can sometimes be a struggle to make sure she isn’t brought down by negative influences. Many of her classmates’ parents don’t put the same emphasis on education, she said.

“I have moments when my children have tried to blend in with lesser students, and I snap them back to reality,” said Johnson, executive director at a social service agency.

State Sen. Miguel del Valle (D-Chicago), vice chairman of the Senate’s Education Committee, suggested Chicago students be allowed to transfer to nearby suburban schools with less poverty. Under federal law, students in failing schools can transfer to better ones, but only within their districts. In Chicago, just a fraction of students get that chance because of space constraints and transportation hurdles.

“Why not give that kid an opportunity to cross the street in Austin and go to a school in Oak Park, or cross Howard Street on the North Side and go to a school in Evanston? That would be choice, wouldn’t it?” he said.

Willard Elementary School in Evanston has such an environment. And 10-year-old Deianara Smith, an African-American student at the racially diverse school, is a standout among her classmates, winning a reading contest and playing a lead role in the school play.

At Willard, where fewer than one-fifth of students are low income, 72 percent of middle-class black students — including Deianara–passed last year’s state reading test, compared to 61.5 percent for the group statewide. She also aced the state’s writing and math tests.

Her schoolwork at Willard is demanding, keeping her up until 2 a.m. earlier this spring to finish a report on Vietnam. Her teachers don’t let her slack. And her peers challenge each other to read the most books.

“They push her, which is really good,” said her mother, Kaquana King, noting that her daughter received extra help in math when she struggled in 2nd grade.

A single mom, King pushes her, too, making sure she completes her homework and signs up for school activities. She also is involved in the school, doing everything from knitting her daughter’s costumes to making photo albums for teacher appreciation week.

“Her teachers have been consistent about demanding a lot, expecting a lot from her and staying on her to get things done,” said John Minor, her 4th-grade teacher. “That usually translates into success.”

It helps that Deianara is surrounded by high-achieving students with few disciplinary problems, he said. Without that encouragement, she may not have the same success.

“If that intensity isn’t there, it is easy to get drawn into the opposite to success,” he said. “It is easy to slip away. It would be easy for any kid.”

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