The Achievement Gap


            The numbers are sometimes dismal.  The African American achievement gap that almost disappeared in the 1970s and 1980s has widened again between White students and people of color.

            Many theories have been attributed to the declining levels of African American achievement from apathetic parents, to violent communities, to negative images seen in the media.  However, if you talk to many students they will say the low expectation levels that educators have toward economically-disadvantaged students is what has led to the wider achievement gap, according to a study by scholar Kati Haycock.

            Students in economically-disadvantaged schools say they are given teachers who are not knowledgeable about the material they are teaching, counselors who place them in lower-level classes because they underestimate their potential and principals who dismiss their concerns about the quality of the education they are receiving.  Some say they drop out because they are bored out of school by the low-level work.

            In her study, Haycock stated that in urban middle schools she observed many coloring assignments, rather than writing or Math assignments.  She also discovered many coloring assignments in urban high schools.  Students who were assigned to read the book To Kill a Mockingbird were told to color a map based on the book, after they completed the reading.

            Haycock believes to increase African American achievement, and achievement in other minority groups, “Clear and public standards for what students should learn at benchmark grade levels are a crucial part of solving the problem.  They are a guide—for teachers, administrators, parents and students themselves—to what knowledge and skills students must master.”

            The different expectations seem evident in Klein Independent School District in the Houston area where African American achievement in Math and Science between students at the more affluent schools versus those at less-affluent schools is evident.  At the more affluent Klein High School and Klein Collins High School, 69 percent and 67 percent of African American students, respectively, passed the Math portion of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test.  However, at the less affluent Klein Forest High School only 53 percent passed.

            On the Science portion of the TAKS test, 75 percent of African Americans at Klein High School passed, while 72 percent of African Americans at Klein Collins High School passed.  Nevertheless, at Klein Forest, only 62 percent passed.

            Despite the subpar numbers in Science and Math, African American achievement in English/Reading and Social Studies in Klein are extremely high, with 92 percent, 87 percent and 92 percent of African Americans passing the English/Language Arts/Reading portion at Klein, Klein Forest and Klein Collins respectively.  The numbers in Social Studies was similar with 93 percent passage at Klein and 91 percent passage at Klein Forest and Klein Collins.

            To combat the declining levels of African American achievement, University of Illinois associate professor Alfred Tatum created the African American Adolescent Male Summer Literacy Institute in Chicago where he encourages his students to question what they learn in school and “fight against ignorance and shallow thinking.” 

            The students focus on different authors, such as Claude McKay, Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks, and then they write expressing their thoughts through short stories, poems and letters to future program participants.

            Many participants of the program who thought that they would be bored like they are in school, have been captivated by the power of words and the knowledge they receive from Tatum, who has shown them that greatness can be achieved if we expect and demand it.

Smith is publisher of Regal Black Men’s Magazine.

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