Academic gap narrows, but disparities remain

County's black students gaining on white peers

August 08, 2006|By LIZ F. KAY | LIZ F. KAY,SUN REPORTER

Many students are achieving greater academic success in Baltimore County public schools, but disparities persist between white and minority students, including the number of students taking challenging classes, according to a county school system report.

The number of African-American students taking Advanced Placement courses in county schools doubled to 4 percent in 2005, while about 13 percent of white children took the classes, according to the Minority Achievement Report, published by the school system's Office of Equity and Assurance. The study also found that nearly one in six African-American students was suspended during the 2004-2005 school year, compared with one in 13 white students.

The report details five school years' worth of data, including standardized test scores and graduation rates of students broken down by race and grade level, while considering poverty and other factors.

Ella White Campbell, chairwoman of the school system's Minority Achievement Advisory Group, said the report shows that county middle schools need to improve, "but if you look at the big picture, we're doing well."

The proportions of minority and white students changed slightly during the study period. Of about 108,000 children enrolled in Baltimore County schools in 2005, the number of African-Americans had increased to 38 percent, up from about a third in 2001.

Meanwhile, the population of white students dropped to 54 percent. Hispanic and Asian populations increased slightly, representing 4.5 percent and nearly 3 percent, respectively.

School officials noted success in reducing disparities in academic performance among younger children. Achievement gaps between minority children and whites in county elementary schools are smaller than those statewide, according to the report.

As for older students, Asian high-schoolers were the only group that met the state's goal of 94 percent attendance in 2005, according to the report. At six high schools, about a quarter of students were absent more than 20 days that year. Those students are likely at risk of dropping out, the report states.

The study found that the percentage of African-American and Hispanic high-schoolers declined between their sophomore and senior years more than white and Asian students, indicating a racial factor in dropout rates. Also, the report shows that nearly one in three African-American high school freshmen who enrolled in 2002 did not graduate by 2005, compared to about one in four of their white classmates.

Middle school may be the key to reducing achievement gaps, educators and activists said. The issue is even more critical for current pupils because children in elementary and middle school will have to pass state high school assessment tests to graduate, as do this fall's freshmen and sophomores.

"If we're going to turn the corner even further with high school assessment results, we're going to have to do something with middle school," said Maggie Kennedy, who leads the Education Coalition of Baltimore County.

More black students are taking challenging classes, but the number still trails other groups, the report shows.

"That's one of our challenges - to work toward eliminating that invisible ceiling that many minorities place on themselves," said Superintendent Joe A. Hairston.

Asian-American students showed the most growth in AP participation, increasing from about 15 percent to 21 percent.

Overall, the suspension rate declined from its peak in 2004, at nearly 12 percent, to just under 11 percent the following year. Campbell said that many principals are finding alternative ways to discipline students. Under federal mandates, schools deemed "persistently dangerous" because of a high number of suspensions face sanctions.

Still, more African-American children are suspended than any other racial group. About 16 percent of African-American students were suspended once in 2005, according to the report, compared to about 7.7 percent of white students.

The impact is even more pronounced among boys. One in five male African-American students was suspended in 2005; about one in 10 white boys were suspended during each year of the study period.

The report is available at www.bcps.org/system/reports and has been distributed to school board members. Staff at each school will also have access to individual reports about their students' progress, which they can use to help make decisions on a local level.

liz.kay@baltsun.com

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