Closing the Gap, Child by Child

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 27, 2006

Teachers at Hollin Meadows Elementary School gathered in fall 2004 for an urgent brainstorming session. They lined one wall of a school trailer with a sheet of paper, about 4 feet by 8 feet, and listed skills that students need to pass state exams in reading, math, science and social studies. They debated the length and timing of lessons and how to cover more than one subject at once.

The Fairfax County school had been jolted by news that 60 percent of black students in selected grades didn't pass the state reading test and that the school had failed to make academic progress required under federal law. Similar alarm bells were ringing at schools elsewhere in the county.

"We were devastated," said Jon Gates, the school's principal. "What hurt the most is we knew other people would think, 'You must have a bunch of low-performing, tough-to-teach, disruptive kids,' and that's not the case. We had to act."

Now, efforts begun in the past two years to address the challenge at that school and others in Fairfax are showing results.

New state data show that many black students are making significant progress countywide. The percentage of black elementary school students who received the highest rating on the state tests, "advanced," rose this year. Last year, Fairfax's black third-graders ranked 91st in reading among their peers statewide. This year, they were 61st.

But the advances have been uneven. From 2005 to 2006, Fairfax's black-white achievement gap in third grade shrank as the county's reading and math scores rose solidly for both groups of students. In fifth grade, the gap narrowed in math but was steady in English. In eighth grade, the gap widened in both subjects.

School system officials say that the expansion of state testing in 2006 to grades 4, 6 and 7 affected scores across the board. Previously, students were tested only in grades 3, 5 and 8. But officials make no excuses for a problem that has come to light in recent years through testing mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law. Scores show that black elementary school students in Richmond, Norfolk and Prince William County are outperforming black Fairfax students on most state math and English tests.

What's more, black Fairfax students on average trail far behind white Fairfax students. Such gaps, driven by economic, educational and social factors, are also a challenge in the District, Maryland and elsewhere.

But the size and wealth of Fairfax and the strong reputation of its schools make the county an important case study of efforts to eliminate educational disparities. The county has the region's largest school system, with more than 164,000 students. About one-tenth are black, and half are white.

"We're closing the gap because people are being much more focused and intentioned," said Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale, who took his post in July 2004. "We are looking child by child, and when you do that, you start to see gains. We still have areas to work on. It doesn't happen overnight."

To pinpoint where students need help, Fairfax elementary and middle schools now track progress with more short tests throughout the year. The system also has hired instructional coaches to help teachers learn new techniques, and it has designed lesson plans to help teachers reach children who have different learning styles.

Hollin Meadows, which is in a diverse middle-class neighborhood along the Route 1 corridor in the Alexandria area, offers a window on those efforts. Nearly 45 percent of the school's estimated 560 students come from low-income homes, and many are the children of immigrants. Forty percent are black, 26 percent white and 16 percent Latino.

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Test Score Divide
The 2006 results from Virginia's English and math tests show that Fairfax County schools are narrowing achievement gaps in some grades and subjects but not in others. Here are the county's passing rates, by race.
Test Score Divide
SOURCE: Virginia Department of Education | By Tobey, The Washington Post - October 27, 2006
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