Racial gap in reading widens

State's blacks score satisfactorily on tests at half rate whites do

`No longer acceptable'

Frustrated educators to discuss possible solutions today

October 19, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Despite years of efforts to boost minority performance, the gap in early reading achievement between black pupils and white pupils has actually widened in Maryland in the 1990s -- as it has in much of the country.

Black pupils continue to score satisfactorily at only half the rate white pupils do on the state's third- and fifth-grade reading exams, a disparity that educators and parents say frustrates attempts to reduce racial gaps in such areas as college entrance rates and job opportunities.

"This is the educational issue for the first part of the next century," says Robert A. Kronley, senior consultant to the Southern Education Foundation and author of a recent report by the group on minority achievement in Maryland. "There are too many kids who are being left behind."

The lag in achievement is by no means limited to poor students in Maryland's urban schools. Racial gaps in well-off Carroll and Howard counties are almost identical to the statewide gap.

While third-grade reading scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams have improved for black and white pupils since 1994, the gap between those two groups has grown larger in all six Baltimore-area school systems -- as well as in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

"Yes, there have been gains, but there is still a substantial achievement gap," says Barbara Dezmon, a Baltimore County educator who is chairwoman of the state's EducationThat Is Multicultural Advisory Council. "It's like a silent cancer, and we can't afford to ignore it."

Today, educational and political leaders from across Maryland will gather in College Park to begin the latest of many drives to close the gap -- one that might produce more results than those in the past because it enjoys the strong support of the governor and the state schools superintendent.

"We need to say that this is no longer acceptable," says state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

"We need to hear more strategies so we can learn the right things to do."

It's not that local school systems or the state have been ignoring the problem.

In just the past school year, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties set up task forces on minority student achievement. Last month, when the state held its annual recognition ceremony, it gave for the first time monetary awards to only those schools that had produced test score gains school-wide and for all minority groups.

And amid the growing statewide gap, bright spots can be found here and there.

For example, in Montgomery County, a new program that provides all first- and second-graders with 90 minutes of continuous reading instruction in smaller classes seems to be paying off. While the reading achievement gap largely remains, scores for all racial groups of pupils improved, and black and Hispanic pupils showed the greatest gains at the end of the first year.

Baltimore County schools also appear to have made inroads. In the past two years, the achievement gap between white and black pupils has been cut in half on the system's first- and second-grade reading exams.

Baltimore County educators hope these same gains will soon appear on the state's reading tests, largely because Baltimore County's early reading instruction has moved to a more unified, phonics-laden curriculum in the past three years.

"All of the teachers are finally speaking a common language when it comes to teacher reading," says Joyce Tyson, a second-grade teacher at Winand Elementary School in Randallstown.

The 710-student, mostly black elementary has posted some of the largest reading gains in Baltimore County. Using the county's new reading program, Winand's early elementary teachers rely on a phonics-intensive textbook series published by Open Court, and parents have been hired to serve as classroom reading assistants and tutors.

"What we're doing here at Winand shows that with good teaching and support from the parents, all kids can learn how to read," says Roberta Alexander, the school's Parent Teacher Association president. "It's as simple as that."

But for many schools across Maryland and the rest of the country, bridging the racial gap hasn't happened. Though progress was made in the 1980s, the disparity in test scores between black pupils and white pupils has remained the same or worsened in most of the country in the past five to 10 years.

"The gap was narrowing, and then it stopped," says Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington. "We've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go."

According to Jennings, the most direct means to improve the performance of black students is what's occurring at Winand: efforts to ensure good instruction.

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