Bridging the gaps

April 19, 2005

BLACK STUDENTS in Baltimore County are closing the learning gap with white students, even as their numbers have grown dramatically in the past five years. The county's schools are bucking a general national trend of declining achievement by minority students as diversity increases.

But the district cannot afford to rest on these laurels. Black students suffer disproportionately high suspension rates, and they are still more likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers. The school district needs to address these shortcomings, while still pushing ahead.

A recent report from the district's Office of Equity and Assurance shows that the proportion of minority students -- most of them African-American -- in Baltimore County schools has doubled in recent years, from 22 percent in 1990 to 44 percent in 2004. Black students increased their proficiency rates by nearly 10 points from 2003 to 2004 in state math and reading assessments. And their participation in "highly rigorous" courses has gone up, as well as their scores on the preliminary SAT and the SAT itself.

However, the report also notes that black students who were suspended at least once increased from nearly 15.2 percent in 2001 to nearly 17.7 percent in 2004, for a consistently higher proportion than any other group. The district needs to review its disciplinary policies to ensure fairness; provide sufficient support services for grades 6 through 10, where suspensions spike among all students; and reach out to involve more parents and communities.

Perhaps most critical for the prospects of minority learners is the fact that areas of the county that have high concentrations of black students also have fewer certified teachers -- about 83 percent, compared with 93 percent in areas with more white students. This teacher gap needs to be addressed at the state and national level as districts seek highly qualified teachers for every classroom under the mandates of the No Child Left Behind law.

In fact, the voluminous data contained in the report are designed to establish a baseline for measuring annual progress in getting students to perform on grade level and to eliminate achievement gaps among different groups of students, as the federal guidelines also require. But the report is also another admirable demonstration of Maryland's longstanding effort to measure -- and improve -- minority student performance, even before passage of the federal law.

Maryland educators want to tackle not only achievement gaps among groups of students but also gaps between student performance and state standards as well as gaps between student performance and student potential. If Baltimore County can make more good progress bridging all these gaps, it can be a model for the state.

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