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'Achievement Gap' Vexes Schools: Black Students -- And Hispanics -- Lag Behind White Classmates.

By Leslie Postal and Dave Weber

May 16, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

If the NAACP lawyers who argued against school segregation 50 years ago could have seen the future, they would have been delighted with 18-year-old Clarence Stephen.

The black teenager is the 2004 valedictorian at Seminole High School -- once all-white but now an integrated Sanford school -- and bound for Yale University this fall. In his world, public schools encourage and provide excellence.

"It's not like I've had any opportunity denied to me," Stephen said.

Yet, as far as anyone knows, Stephen is the first black student to graduate at the top of a class since Seminole County desegregated in 1970.

Fifty years after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered an equal education for all, public schools are dramatically unequal when it comes to achievement. From kindergarten to 12th grade, black students -- and Hispanics, too -- lag behind white classmates.

That "achievement gap" remains one of the most pervasive and vexing problems in education nationwide.

It was on full display last week when scores from this year's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test were released. They showed 63 percent of white students read as they should, compared with 32 percent of black students and 42 percent of Hispanic students.

Three big factors can be blamed for the gap, said school experts, educators, parents and students.

*?Home life. Many black and Hispanic students live in poverty, with uneducated parents who can't or don't make education a priority.

*?Schools. Poor minority students often are taught by less-experienced teachers and enrolled in less-challenging courses than wealthier whites.

*?Attitudes. Some black students view school achievement as "not cool" and acting "white," disparaging those who excel.

Today, state and local officials say that closing the gap is a top priority. At last week's FCAT announcement, Gov. Jeb Bush called it "one of the great challenges" facing Florida.

On Friday, Bush visited Apopka High School to sign legislation designed to help schools encourage minority students to take Advance Placement courses -- upper-level classes that carry college credit. The law continues a four-year partnership between the state and the College Board, which runs the AP program.

Karen Hamilton, 17, said it worked for her. The Apopka senior, who is black, said she never would have enrolled in four AP courses if Apopka High teachers hadn't pushed her.

"They saw a lot of potential in me," said Hamilton, who will attend the University of Florida. "It makes a world of difference."

Throughout Florida, more minority students are taking advanced courses, and FCAT scores for minority students are going up at a higher rate than those of whites. So the test-score gap is shrinking a little.

Despite such progress, however, the gap remains a stubborn fact of academic life.

In 2003, the state's black students, for example, lagged behind on every state test. It starts with the "readiness screenings" for incoming kindergartners, continues through the FCAT taken by third- to 10th-graders and culminates in the SAT tackled by the college-bound. At high-school graduations, a far smaller percentage of blacks earn diplomas than whites.

The gap on the National Assessment of Education Progress -- the series of tests taken by students across the country and dubbed the "nation's report card" -- has narrowed in the past three decades. Nationally, the difference between black and white 9-year-olds on the reading test, for example, shrank from 44 points to 35 from 1971 to 1999.

Still, the gap remains in every state, on almost every test.

The Minority Student Achievement Network, a nationwide consortium of high-performing school districts, has been studying why the gap exists and how to correct it.

The group concluded that schools need to tend to business and avoid the blame game.

"We can get too myopic and focus on the home and what parents should do," said Rossi Ray-Taylor, executive director of the network. "We have got to, as educators, focus on what we can do and control at school. There is plenty of work there."

In Orange, Seminole and Volusia, among other places, administrators said they are doing more to ensure all their students succeed academically.

At Dover Shores Elementary School in Orlando, nearly 70 percent of the students are poor enough to qualify for the federal government's school-lunch program. More than half are Hispanic or black.

Yet last year the school earned an A on the state's school report card, and its black and Hispanic students outperformed blacks and Hispanics in Orange County and the state.

Many poor minority children start kindergarten at a disadvantage because of limited early-childhood experiences. Dover Shores Principal Irma Moss knows some of her students have families who provide little help or support.

But the school, she said, can't set different expectations for those youngsters or offer them watered-down classes.

"We're colorblind here," she said. "They're expected to do their work and to do their best. I don't care where they're from."

Too many minority and low-income students, however, don't get the best an educational system has to offer, according to The Education Trust, a Washington organization dedicated to closing the gap.

They attend poorly funded schools and end up with inexperienced teachers or teachers who don't know their subjects well. Schools also don't expect as much from them, so they're not often enrolled in challenging classes, said Kevin Carey, an Education Trust analyst.

To Kajuel West, a student at Florida A&M University's College of Law, responsibility also lies with black parents, who he thinks must stop waiting for white-run school systems to do right by their children.

"That solution comes from black people taking control of the educational process for their children," said West, whose daughter is in kindergarten in a carefully chosen, mostly black charter school.

West said he goofed off in his integrated high school in St. Petersburg, with his focus on sports rather than academics. But after a stint in the Navy, he decided he needed more education and enrolled at FAMU, a historically black university that advocates say gives black students the support they need.

Though he blames the gap on the failures of today's schools, he still views the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling as "monumental" and the reason he's a college grad and law student.

Without the commitment to equal education for blacks, he said, "who would even think of educating me?"

In Florida, minority students remain underrepresented in courses for the college-bound and overly represented in remedial classes. But educators say that is changing, though slowly.

Every student at Mount Dora High School passes through Frank Wood's economics and American government class on the way to graduation, giving him an up-close view of the gap.

"But I have seen it diminish considerably over the years," Wood said. "In the classroom, the grades and the test scores have evened out," he added. "I am sensing that it is closing."

At Seminole High this year, 217 black students took an AP or honors class, compared with 162 in 2003. Angel Jackson, a Seminole 11th-grader, is taking two advanced classes this year, but she is one of just a handful of blacks in each. Many black students, she said, just aren't interested in academics.

"A lot of them complain more than they try," she said.

Angel's mother, Denise DeBrew, said many black students don't pursue the options open to them.

"You still have a situation where it's not cool to be smart," DeBrew said, so children who "don't have the drive within or a good support system" back away -- and criticize those who do want to excel.

"I hear my children talking about the pressure they have from the other kids," she said.

Ingrid Burton Nathan, a teacher at Lake Mary High School, often sees black students who seem more concerned with their social life than their schoolwork.

Nathan, the first black student to integrate all-white Sanford Junior High School in 1965, said today's schools don't provide black children with the support that existed during segregation, when black teachers were part of the community and kept in contact with parents.

Today, black students often do not relate to white teachers.

"Who is behind the minority kids?" Nathan asked. "Who is keeping them focused?"

At Seminole High, where only 12 percent of black students could read at grade level on last year's FCAT, compared with 49 percent of whites, this year's graduation is seen as a sign things are improving.

In addition to Stephen's becoming valedictorian, salutatorian Chris Newman also is black, an unusual occurrence in a school that is 25 percent black and more than 50 percent white. Both are in the school's International Baccalaureate program, a rigorous series of classes for the college-bound.

Still, Stephen knows some black classmates weren't impressed with his good grades. Some told him he was a "white boy in a black man's body." Others respected him more for his weight-lifting skills than scholastic achievements.

Stephen, the son of college-educated Haitian immigrants, said he ignored the idea blacks should excel on the field, not in the classroom.

"You can still be black and proud," he said, "and not have that mind-set."

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