Poverty, race and academic performance

August 11, 1998|By Howard "Pete" Rawlings

JUST TWO days before a Public Agenda/Public Education Network (PEN) study found that just 28 percent of African-American parents believe that standardized tests are culturally biased, the Prince George's County Board of Education called for an investigation of potential racial bias in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program or MSPAP.

Noting a 17-point difference between white and African-American students' average MSPAP scores, board members concluded that bias is the culprit. Unfortunately, all of the evidence collected each year by the Maryland Department of Education and external sources indicates that this simply isn't so. I say unfortunately because fixing the test would be a lot easier than fixing the real problem -- a much more pernicious, complex, systemic problem -- poverty and all its consequences.

An old story

Racial disparity in test scores is not new; it has been documented on the major standardized tests for decades. On the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, a standardized test administered last year to the state's second-, fourth- and sixth-graders, white students once again outperformed African-American students. Though narrowing in recent years, similar achievement gaps can be seen on the biennial National Assessment of Educational Progress that's given to third- and eighth-graders.

State SAT data show that, on average, white students score more than 200 points higher than African-American students. But, then again, the data show an even greater disparity in scores between test takers who are poor and those who are not. Maryland students whose family income is less than $20,000 annually score about 245 points lower than those whose family income is more than $80,000.

The simple fact is that poor students are often black students. Poor students typically attend poor schools -- schools with fewer resources and less parental involvement; schools that must deal first with containing guns, drugs and violence and then with academics. Typically, their schools have a dearth of leaders who can bring about major educational improvements, and they cannot find enough qualified teachers to fill their classrooms.

Prince George's County has 52,600 students living in poverty -- a number that's greater than the total enrollment of many school systems -- and the highest percentage of provisionally certified teachers in the state. More than 13 Rawlings percent of its teaching force is provisionally certified, compared with just 4.5 percent statewide.

Worse yet, these teachers are often concentrated in the county's high-poverty schools, where it is not unusual to find that up to a quarter of the teachers do not qualify for a professional certificate. To stem this trend, the State Board of Education recently capped the number of times provisional certificates can be renewed.

One county's plight

Is it not, perhaps, more reasonable to attribute Prince George's County's discouraging MSPAP scores, second lowest in the state, to the combination of poverty, underqualified teachers and a lack of accountability for the success of instructional programs than to racial bias in testing?

Such issues are not lost on the 1,600 white and African-American parents surveyed nationwide by the Public Agenda/PEN study. For all the parents' demographic differences, their strategies for eliminating the performance gap are strikingly similar: 1. Raise and enforce high academic standards. 2. Provide instructional programs that have been proven to work well. 3. Expand preschool programs for students from impoverished households. rTC 4. Involve parents of poor-performing children in workshops designed to teach them how to help their children. 5. Give failing schools the money and resources they need to improve.

This is what School Accountability Funding for Excellence, or SAFE, legislation is designed to do. Through SAFE, Maryland schools serving a high percentage of at-risk students can count on $61.5 million in new money this year.

Also, the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program, a new federal initiative to help such students, will provide $2.1 million for Maryland schools.

We know African-American students can achieve on par with -- and better than -- their peers of other races. Bedford Elementary School in Baltimore County, whose enrollment is 78 percent African American, boasts a MSPAP score that's 10 points higher than the state average.

Prince George's County's Woodmore Elementary School, whose enrollment is 86 percent African American, recorded a composite score of 50.1 -- more than 8 points above the state average.

We must ensure that such schools become the rule, not the exception.

Racial bias is not to blame for our educational crisis. It is a red herring that shifts our focus from the real and more insidious cause -- one that will not be remedied by inflammatory rhetoric or superficial quick fixes.

What's needed

At-risk students need sustained parental support, teachers with the training and resources to help them, one-on-one instructional assistance and administrators prepared for the task before them.

Most importantly, poor students need to know that they will be held to the same rigorous standards our wealthiest students are. With the proper support in place, excuses may finally be a thing of the past.

Howard "Pete" Rawlings is chairman of the Maryland House of Delegates Appropriations Committee.

Pub Date: 8/11/98

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