Fairfax Success Masks Gap for Black Students

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 14, 2006

Black students in Fairfax County are consistently scoring lower on state standardized tests than African American children in Richmond, Norfolk and other comparatively poor Virginia districts, surprising Fairfax educators and forcing one of the nation's wealthiest school systems to acknowledge shortcomings that have been masked by its overall success.

Even within Fairfax schools, black elementary school students are outperformed on reading and math tests by whites and some other students, including Hispanics, poor children and immigrants learning English.

The statewide disparity occurs among all age groups except the middle-school grades, but it is most pronounced at the elementary level, according to Virginia Department of Education data analyzed by The Washington Post. Black third-graders in Fairfax ranked 91st among more than 125 Virginia districts in reading and 69th in math in tests taken last year. Fifth-graders ranked 40th in reading and 71st in math.

"Something is broken with the way we teach a segment of the population," said John Johnson, education chairman for the Fairfax County NAACP and the father of two students in county schools. "Despite all the things we have at our disposal, our children are being outperformed by people like us -- or people with fewer resources."

The Fairfax County schools are among the most respected in the country, and their quality has long been a draw for families. Nearly 90 percent of public school graduates go on to college or other schools. The district's SAT scores were the best in the county's history last year and 8.4 percent above the national average.

In a district so accustomed to being on top, Fairfax leaders hadn't noticed that many black students were not making the grade.

"We had a perception that our performance is higher than the data would indicate, in part because of the accolades our schools get," said Superintendent Jack D. Dale. "Until you peel back the onion a little bit, you may not see areas where you are not as successful."

The standardized tests taken by Virginia students are used to measure performance under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires school systems to present overall performance data as well as the scores of racial groups, poor children and disabled students.

In Fairfax, 59 percent of black third-graders passed last year's state reading test. By comparison, 74 percent of black third-graders in Richmond passed the test and about 71 percent in Norfolk. Statewide, the passing rate for black children was 67 percent. About 79 percent of all Fairfax students passed.

Fairfax's black third-graders did better in math, with a 75 percent pass rate. But 86 percent of their peers in Richmond and 80 percent in Norfolk passed. Fairfax did not do well against other Northern Virginia districts, either. In Prince William and Loudoun counties, 84 percent of black students passed and in Arlington, 81 percent.

A look at Maryland test scores required under the federal law reveals no similar pattern of African Americans in well-heeled suburbs lagging behind peers in lower-income urban districts. Black students in Montgomery County, a district that in many ways mirrors Fairfax, are well ahead of black students in urban Baltimore in standardized reading and math tests.

District students take another standardized test, and their performance cannot be compared with test scores of students in Maryland or Virginia.

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