The unheralded story of black academic achievement

Anne C. Lewis

November 24, 1992|By Anne C. Lewis

THERE is one important story I know of that isn't being told. It's not a question of a cover-up -- the facts are easily accessible from sources that anyone can find in the library or in a collection of news clippings from the past few months. The only mystery is why this story hasn't drawn more attention.

This is a story about black youngsters in our nation's schools. But it's not the usual tale of woe. This is a different story. Some information revealed in the report of the National Education Goals Panel first piqued my curiosity. I began to pay closer attention to coverage of reports from the U.S. Census Bureau. I checked data from the College Board and from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

And I came up with a picture of black children and youth that differs from the one generally portrayed in the media and in mountains of reports on education. Working against truly cruel odds, these children are doing as well as other students in many ways -- and even better in some. They certainly seem to be trying as hard.

Racial comparisons are invidious, of course, and in presenting the information that follows I use them blatantly. I justify doing so because such comparisons are often made and usually result in reinforcing negative stereotypes of black students. Statisticians would say that much of the information I'm about to highlight is statistically insignificant -- wiped out by the margins of error. But when there are so many pieces of evidence, one might imagine that the margins of error could work in the black students' favor as often as not.

* From "The Condition of Education 1992," a government publication, one learns that, since 1973, blacks have been steadily narrowing the gap between themselves and whites in math and science proficiency. The average reading proficiency of blacks in all three age groups assessed by the NAEP (ages 9, 13 and 17) is much higher than it was 20 years ago.

* According to the College Board, between 1976 and 1992 the mean scores of black students on the Scholastic Aptitude Test rose 20 points on the verbal section and 31 points on the math section. The mean score of whites increased by much smaller margins during that same period.

* During approximately the same years, the numbers of blacks completing high school increased by 10 percent, while the rates of school completion for other racial and ethnic groups remained largely unchanged. Blacks who dropped out of school at the beginning of the 1980s were more likely than members of any other group to have returned to school within four years. More recent data show that black high school students attend school at higher rates than other racial groups, though they do tend to cut classes more frequently.

* Let's look at the "behavior" problem. While no racial group shows much overall interest in community service, black students participate at almost twice the rate of whites or Hispanics, according to the education goals panel. And this cannot be attributed to the continuing legacy off community ties rural areas, where so many blacks from the Southeast live. Urban students are more likely than either rural or suburban students to be frequently involved in community service.

* Black students are much less likely than members of other racial and ethnic groups to have consumed alcohol or smoked marijuana recently . (The use of cocaine is a minor problem for all groups.) Blacks are about half as likely as members of other groups to have smoked marijuana at school, though they are more likely to have used alcohol on school premises.

Some of these same sources of data are quite revealing about the opportunities to succeed that are open to black students. First, blacks have more to fear from violence at their schools. Among 12th-graders, the goals panel reports, a much higher percentage of black students than members of other groups say they have been threatened with or injured by weapons at school.

That same report also shows that, although the total number of black students taking algebra and geometry increased by 11 percentage points during the 1980s, only 25 percent of blacks who graduated in 1987 had credits in these courses -- courses considered essential gateways to careers that depend heavily on math and science. Don't even ask about the number of black students with high school credits in calculus; it is scarcely large enough to register on the charts. Only 9 percent of black $H students had completed biology, chemistry and physics.

These data confirm once again studies showing that low-income blacks and other minorities are virtually shut out of college-preparatory course-work if they attend schools with large enrollments of low-income and minority students. Moreover, their teachers are less competent in teaching the hard sciences. Students in these schools rarely know what it means to be critical thinkers and academic problem solvers.

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