Sunday, August 24, 2003

Black students narrow the gap


Improvements logged in 12 of 20 tests on Ohio's Local Report Cards

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

African-American students showed the most improvement of any group on this year's Local Report Cards, released last week by the Ohio Department of Education.

But officials say gaps in achievement between minority groups remain unacceptably high.

"Closing these achievement gaps is one of the state board of education's top priorities," said Susan Tave Zelman, state superintendent of public instruction.

"We will continue to work in partnership with schools and communities to increase the alignment of what we expect students to learn with what we teach and assess."

The achievement gap between minority and nonminority students is a complex education issue involving factors from income to culture, said Ray Legler, senior program associate at the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, a nonprofit research group based in Naperville, Ill.

In fact, President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002, requires schools nationwide to reduce the discrepancy.

"There are as variety of causes and lots of different approaches to solutions," Legler said, adding that Bush's legislation has brought more attention to the issue.

OK not good enough

"We can no longer call ourselves a successful district or school if our average score is OK. You can't be content unless you pay attention to the subgroups as well," he said.

The state cautioned parents not to compare last year's rankings with the newly released results because the criteria used to determine the rankings aren't the same. Three new measures were added to look at the performance of districts and schools, including federal mandates.

Nevertheless, state officials did make comparisons and discovered that even though students with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency were included for the first time, gains were made.

"What this means is that regardless of changes in reporting, Ohio school districts and buildings are seeing improvement," said J.C. Benton, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education.

Highlights from state report card results show a narrowing of achievement gaps in 20 tested subjects. In sixth-grade reading, for example, the difference between the highest- and lowest-performing students in the major racial and ethnic groups was reduced by 13.6 percentage points. African-American students improved the most, making progress on 12 of 20 tests.

The biggest gain was in sixth-grade reading, where there was a 14.2-percentage point growth.

But state officials warned there is still work to be done because graduation rates between whites and African-Americans differ by 26.4 percentage points.

"We still have a long way to go," Zelman said.

Reading is key

One local school that has had success in narrowing the achievement gap is Clovernook Elementary.

The K-6 school of 360 students adopted a new reading mastery program with the rest of the school district in North College Hill. It involves phonics-based reading instruction that cuts out the fluff, Principal Sheri Wallace said.

"Reading was the key to success in all of the proficiency tests," she said. "It all starts with how well you read and comprehend. Obviously, we have a couple of areas in which we need to grow, but our best gain has been in our minority group."

Over the past year, Ohio has seen a larger number of urban districts in an accountability system that officials say measures improvement more fairly. Several urban districts in low-income communities moved out of the academic emergency designation. Locally, the 40,347-student Cincinnati Public Schools district remains in academic emergency - one of 16 in the state - for the second year in a row. The district attained four performance standards, one fewer than last year.

Superintendent Alton Frailey said his district's achievement gap is troubling.

"To close the achievement gap, you have to take a systemic approach," he said. "A critical thing is to determine our capacity to serve all students who want to have pre-K. We'd like to have every student who wishes to be in preschool in preschool."

Too many students enter already behind in necessary skills, he said. The district also plans to align its curriculum with new state standards. Many students in Cincinnati move around from school to school within the school year and that creates inconsistencies, Frailey said. Aligning the curriculum should create more consistency.

"Standards-based education is an aligned system where what is expected of students is reflected in what is taught and is tested," the state's Benton said. "Then, everyone is held accountable for those results. While this sounds logical, it isn't always what Ohio has done. We believe that we can close gaps in achievement by ensuring that what's taught in Classroom A is also taught in Classroom B.

"It shouldn't matter where you live or what your background is in order to receive that instruction. In short, demographics should not determine a student's academic destiny."

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E-mail kgoetz@enquirer.com




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