Balto. Co. students progress, but gaps remain

Minorities' achievement, suspensions noted in report

`More needs to be done'

April 12, 2005|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County students of all races are making academic progress by many measures, but wide gaps in the achievement and suspension rates between whites and minorities remain, according to a report released yesterday.

The report shows that minority students, along with whites, are taking more "highly rigorous" courses, and that in some cases the achievement gap in standardized test scores is narrowing. At the same time, however, the number of suspensions for African-American students nearly doubled between 2000 and 2004 while the number for white students rose only slightly. And teachers in areas of the county with a high minority population have less experience overall than those in the central, predominantly white and affluent area of the county.

"It's the first time there has been movement of any kind ... in the right direction," said Ella White Campbell, chairwoman of the school district's task force on minority achievement. "Some progress has been made, but more needs to be done."

In response to the report, Campbell called on the district to renew its efforts to place experienced teachers in schools with high minority populations, and to develop alternatives to suspension. She said broad categories for suspension, such as "failure to follow school rules and regulations," can be used to unfairly target minorities.

"Everything that a child does wrong does not have to end in suspension," she said.

The Baltimore County school district's minority enrollment is rising rapidly, and the report is the most exhaustive to date on the status of minority student achievement. With 253 tables in 264 pages, it takes a critical look at persisting achievement gaps and the effectiveness of efforts to close them.

Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said last night that his focus is on the gaps between students' performance and the standards they must meet - not on the gaps between racial groups.

"If you just want to compare apples and oranges, blacks against whites, you'll always have a gap there," he said. "But that doesn't necessarily demonstrate the quality of work being done in our classrooms."

Several school board members contacted for comment had not read the report.

While the overarching conclusions drawn from the data are not new, many specifics in the report are. For example, the district's teaching force does not reflect the racial diversity of its student body.

The report examines student performance by gender as well as race. It shows girls consistently outperforming boys on reading tests.

Several findings suggest that household income does not explain the black-white achievement gap. White students receiving free or reduced-price lunch scored 88 points higher on the verbal section of the SAT last year than blacks receiving free or reduced-price lunch, and 96 points higher in math.

There is also a gap when comparing the performance of students receiving special-education services. Only 4 percent of African-American middle school pupils in special education passed the state math test last year, compared with about 20 percent of white special-education pupils in sixth and seventh grades and about 13 percent of those in eighth grade.

Written by Barbara Dezmon, assistant to the superintendent for equity and assurance, the report reviews five years of data during a time of rapid demographic change. In the 1990-1991 school year, the district had 86,922 students, 19,561 - or 22 percent - of them minorities. By the 2003-2004 school year, it had 108,764 students, 47,916 - or 44 percent - of them minorities. More than four in five of the minority students are African-American.

The report also measures the performance of Asians, Hispanics and American Indians, showing better test scores in many cases.

Looking only at districtwide data, the report is meant as a guide for county principals analyzing the performance of their schools, Dezmon said. In addition, the state education department's steering committee on minority education, which Dezmon heads, is recommending to state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick that all of Maryland's school districts be required to create a similar report.

The report will be updated annually, Dezmon said.

The report shows white and African-American students making gains on the SAT, the college entrance exam, but whites' scores are improving at a faster pace. Though the raw number of tests taken is up, the percentage of African-Americans tested declined as enrollment went up.

A detailed analysis of Maryland School Assessment scores for children as third-graders in 2003 and fourth-graders in 2004 shows a narrowing of the achievement gap. African-American children increased their pass rate in reading from 50 percent in 2003 to 73 percent in 2004. In the same time period, white children improved their pass rate from 74 percent to 88 percent, meaning the reading achievement gap shrunk from 24 to almost 16 percentage points.

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