Friday, January 12, 2001

Districts target 'achievement gap'

By Charles Wolfe
The Associated Press

        FRANKFORT — Six school districts have pledged to attack one insidious aspect of public education — the “achievement gap” reflected in test scores that show black students consistently lagging behind their white peers.

        “We need to take the scores out of the closet and put 'em in front of people,” one of the participating superintendents, Robert Smotherman of Bardstown Independent, said Thursday.

        Mr. Smotherman's district and the others — Owensboro, Paducah, Fayette County, Hardin County and Jefferson County — agreed to try strategies suggested by a task force that studied minority student achievement.

        Together, the six districts account for 70 percent of Kentucky's black students, Education Commissioner Gene Wilhoit said.

        Test scores have been on the rise for all groups of students in the last 10 years, but the gap has persisted. As a group, white females are the highest achievers and black males are the lowest. White males and black females are fairly close to each other in the middle.

        The gap isn't as pronounced in Northern Kentucky schools because most have few or no minority students. Covington Independent Schools has the largest percentage of black students, who make up about 20 percent of the district.

        Covington is working to fill a new position for an equity/diversity officer to look at differences in student performances and other fairness issues. However, the district has not yet broken down its test scores by race to target po tential trouble areas.

        “We're trying to improve everybody's test scores,” Covington interim Superintendent Jack Moreland said. “It is important that they (minority students) don't get left behind.”

        Mr. Wilhoit said the gap is not a Kentucky phenomenon. It appears in scores across the country and in all subject areas, he said.

        “That's unacceptable,” Mr. Wilhoit said in a news conference. He said the fact the gap exists means something must be done about it.

        The districts are trying different strategies.

        Hardin County plans to regularly assess reading skills of all elementary pupils and review spe cial-education placements to see whether the number of blacks is disproportionate. Progress of pupils at two elementaries — Parkway and Woodland, both in Radcliff — will be tracked up into high school.

        Fayette County has employed an equity consultant. Jefferson County is researching the best practices of schools proven to be “gap closers.” Owensboro is concentrating on its 5-6 Center, where pupils from across the city come together for the first time.

        Paducah created a minority improvement committee, concentrating on Tilghman High School and on Cooper Whiteside and McNabb elementaries.

        In Bardstown, where a quarter of the student body of 1,885 is black, the strategy is to ensure all students have access to a rigorous curriculum and that everyone — students, teachers, administrators, counselors and parents — has high expectations for all students, regardless of race or gender, Mr. Smotherman, the superintendent, said in an interview.

        Instead of knowing just average scores for a school or class, teachers will be given every annual test score for each student, Mr. Smotherman said. “We think if they know where these kids have scored in the past, they'll have a much clearer idea” of each student's needs, he said.


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