Blacks in Harder-Rated Classes, Study Says

Monday, March 5, 2007

On Feb. 23, The Washington Post reported on a government study that showed high school students' achievement flat on some key standardized tests even though their grades and the apparent rigor of their course loads were rising. Here is another angle:

By one academic measure, a little-noticed finding from that U.S. Education Department report showed that black high school students have caught up to their white classmates.

The study of the transcripts of 2005 high school graduates found that 52 percent of the black graduates had completed a four-year curriculum of at least "mid-level" difficulty. For their white counterparts that year, the rate was 51 percent -- a one percentage point difference that experts said was statistically insignificant.

Three surveys in the 1990s had found that black graduates trailed white graduates on that measure by a significant margin; the gap was 11 percentage points as recently as 1994.

These findings were part of the first transcript study in five years by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the nation's report card.

In 2005, Asian/Pacific Islander graduates took a tougher course load than white and black graduates, with 63 percent completing at least a mid-level curriculum. The rate was 44 percent for Hispanic graduates.

The study did not include transcripts of high school dropouts, an important caveat because dropout rates vary widely among racial and ethnic groups.

Experts also point out that the study based its definition of course rigor on titles and descriptions, not necessarily on the delivered content. Known as course-title inflation, that means a class might be called calculus but really teach only algebra. Experts say minority students are often disproportionately affected by such inflation.

"You see all the time that courses are being dumbed down even if they have tough-sounding titles," said Erich Martel, a history teacher at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in the District.

-- Amit R. Paley

© 2007 The Washington Post Company