D.C. schools have largest black-white achievement gap in federal study

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The Washington Post
By: Lyndsey Layton
December 7, 2011

D.C. schools have largest black-white achievement gap in federal study

D.C. public schools have the largest achievement gap between black and white students among the nation's major urban school systems, a distinction laid bare in a federal study released Wednesday.

The District also has the widest achievement gap between white and Hispanic students, the study found, compared with results from other large systems and the national average.

The study is based on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, federal reading and math exams taken this year by fourth- and eighth-graders across the country.

The tests are the only continuing and nationally representative assessment of what students know. State-by-state results were released last month, but large cities have agreed to have their own results published separately since 2002, with 21 participating this year.

Generally speaking, the results in large cities mirror national trends: Students are showing some improvement in math, but progress in reading is stagnating.

In reading and math, the gap in scores between black and white students was widest in D.C. schools compared with those in 20 other urban systems, including New York City, Los Angeles and Miami.

The D.C. gap was also greater than the national average and the average for cities with populations of 250,000 or more, according to the study.

On the fourth-grade math test, for example, black students in the District scored an average of 223 points out of a possible 500 while their white classmates averaged 272, or 49 points higher. That difference is more than twice the national achievement gap for that test.

The achievement gap has proved to be a stubborn problem, and one of growing concern among educators, policy makers and civic leaders. With enactment of the No Child Left Behind law in 2002, the federal government made closing the gap a priority and a reason for increased accountability in public education. A host of strategies have been deployed by schools across the country to attack the gap, but few have resulted in substantial progress.

All 21 cities in the study displayed a difference in performance between whites and blacks and between whites and Hispanics.

But in every case, their variations were less than in the District -- in some cases five times smaller. In the fourth grade math example, for instance, Cleveland's black and white students were separated by a 14-point gap.

The District's racial gap is really an income divide, said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents the largest urban school systems.

"You've got relatively more well-to-do whites in Upper Northwest quadrants, particularly Ward 3, which score higher than white students nationally and you're comparing it with poor, African American students largely in Wards 7 and 8," Casserly said. "There are extreme income disparities."

Atlanta, which also has a sizeable achievement gap, presents the same problem, Casserly said. "You've got white students in the Buckhead section scoring off the charts but when you compare with poor African Americans that make up most of Atlanta, you're looking at an achievement gap that is similar to the District's," he said.

And although Cleveland appears to have a narrow racial gap, the small difference between test scores of black and white students is linked to the fact that both groups are relatively low-income, Casserly said.

"You've got poor Appalachian whites in Cleveland and poor African American students," he said. "You're looking at a wealth factor."

The District's racial achievement gap is a long-standing pattern, he said.

But it's difficult to say whether that gap has changed over time relative to the other cities because for much of the past decade, there haven't been enough white students in D.C. taking the test to reliably draw conclusions, according to the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the test.

Currently, 46,191 students are enrolled in D.C. public schools, with about 79 percent African American, 12 percent Hispanic, 7 percent white and 2 percent self-declared "other."

The new study did not include test scores of students who attend public charter schools in the District, which now educate about 40 percent of public schoolchildren. An analysis of the test scores of D.C. public charter students in 2011 showed that black students attending charters scored higher in math and reading tests in both fourth and eighth grades than their counterparts in traditional District schools. The number of white students attending public charters in the District was too small to draw a conclusion about their academic performance compared with any other group.

Overall, the District placed at or near the bottom of the 21 cities in the study in terms of scores for math and reading in fourth and eighth grades; D.C. tied with Detroit for last place in eighth grade reading.

The school systems that consistently scored at the top of the heap were Charlotte, which was either No. 1 or 2 in every category; Hillsborough County, Fla.; and Austin.

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