Performance Gap on Tests Uneven for Black Students

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 22, 2006

Black students trail white students more in mathematics than in reading, especially in middle school grades, an analysis of Maryland test scores shows. But the achievement gap for Hispanic students is virtually the same in both academic subjects, a contrast that perplexed some school testing experts.

Maryland School Assessment data made public this week show that the state's two largest school systems -- in Montgomery and Prince George's counties -- continue to face enormous racial and ethnic disparities in educational achievement.

Black students in Montgomery were as many as 41 percentage points behind non-Hispanic white students in scoring proficient or better on the state tests. Hispanic students from Montgomery were as many as 37 percentage points behind non-Hispanic white students. Proficiency is the state's term for grade-level performance.

The percentage-point differences for Prince George's black and Hispanic students reached into the upper 20s and low 30s.

A Washington Post analysis of results from the March tests of schoolchildren from grades 3 through 8 found that such achievement gaps -- which had narrowed significantly in previous years -- barely budged this year in some grades and narrowed only somewhat in others.

But the analysis also found a bulge in the math gap for black students that does not exist for Hispanic students.

In eighth grade, 32 percent of Maryland black students scored proficient or better in math. That result was 40 percentage points behind the scores for Maryland non-Hispanic white students.

In eighth-grade reading, the state's black students trailed by 30 points.

Black seventh-graders statewide were 37 points behind in math but 28 points behind in reading. In third and sixth grades, the math bulge in the black achievement gap was smaller but still notable. Only in fourth and fifth grades were the math and reading gaps roughly equivalent for black students.

By contrast, the size of the achievement gap between Hispanic and non-Hispanic white students was identical or nearly the same for reading and math across all grades: 28 points in eighth grade, 27 points in seventh grade, fewer in earlier grades.

The bulging math gap statewide for black students was also found in an analysis of Montgomery and Prince George's scores. The black student population in Montgomery is about 32,000, or 23 percent of total enrollment. In Prince George's it is about 102,000, or 76 percent of total enrollment.

Gary Heath, assistant superintendent for assessment and accountability at the Maryland State Department of Education, said the Post analysis reinforced questions about the quality of math teaching in some regions of the state, including majority-black systems in Prince George's and Baltimore. Teacher quality, he said, is "a huge variable."

Leroy J. Tompkins, chief accountability officer for Prince George's public schools, said that he had not previously focused on how much the math disparity for black students varies from the reading gap. But he confirmed the Post analysis. "As we move through the grade levels," Tompkins said, "the gap tends to be larger in mathematics."

There is much debate about what causes achievement gaps. Tompkins listed several possible variables influencing student performance -- among them teacher quality, family income and parental education. He also said middle school math course configurations could play a role in the math gap, as higher-achieving students get tracked into more demanding courses.

Faith Connolly, director of shared accountability for Montgomery schools, said the larger math gap for black students may reflect issues in the design of the state tests. She also said that students who have trouble with reading and math may have a magnified problem when they take a complex math test that requires significant reading comprehension skills.

Whatever the cause of the larger math gap, Connolly said, the data should be taken seriously: "You don't want that gap, regardless. I don't care where it is and what subject it is. It's disturbing."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company