Rating Education Gains

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 11, 2007

We seem to be doing a bit better educating our most disadvantaged students. But many educators think that is not enough.

The numbers displayed in the graphic smorgasbord known as "The Condition of Education 2007," from the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics, reveal the struggles of a generation to make schools work for all children.

Enrollment in publicly funded day care increased significantly from 1991 to 2005. The portion of black children using such services rose from 58 percent to 66 percent. For Hispanic children, the figure rose from 39 percent to 43 percent; for non-Hispanic whites, from 54 percent to 59 percent.

More public day care does not necessarily mean more learning is going on, although the quality of such centers appears to be improving as more states increase support for pre-kindergarten classes and in some cases make them available to all who want them. The relatively low number of Hispanic children in such programs might be a problem, as improving their grasp of English is crucial to the educational success of the largest minority group.

From 1979 to 2005, there was significant growth in the percentage of 5- to 17-year-old U.S. children who spoke a language other than English at home: from 9 percent to 20 percent. But the percentage of children in that situation who spoke English with difficulty was much smaller: 5 percent in 2005. Many young immigrants or children of immigrants were picking up spoken English from friends, television and school, even though the writing and reading skills they need for college or good jobs have been slower to develop, other studies show.

Hispanic children have been the big story of the past three decades. In 1972, they made up 6 percent of the public school population, but by 2005 they accounted for 20 percent, with non-Hispanic white children declining from 78 percent to 58 percent and black children staying about the same, 16 percent.

Mark Schneider, commissioner of the national center, summed up the achievement results during that period of demographic shifts: "Since the early 1970s, there has been improvement in the scores of 9- and 13-year-olds on national reading and mathematics assessments, but the scores of 17-year-olds have remained flat."

Those results have not been good enough for the many parents who have put their children in taxpayer-funded public charter schools, which operate independently of school districts in 40 states and the District. There were 3,294 charter schools in 2005, compared with 90,000 conventional public schools.

Charter schools are much more likely to have black students. In 2005, 31 percent of charter school students were black, compared with 17 percent in conventional schools. According to research, charter schools on average have not raised student achievement more than conventional public schools, although parents are still drawn to successful charters such as the KIPP DC:KEY Academy in Southeast Washington, with a nearly all-black enrollment and the city's highest middle school test scores.

To stimulate the academic progress of minority students in high schools where improvement has been so slow, many school systems have reversed their policies of allowing only the best students in affluent areas to take Advanced Placement courses and exams, which prepare students for college and in some cases earn university credit.

From 1997 to 2005, the number of students taking AP exams jumped 111 percent, to 1.2 million. The increases were even greater for minorities: 177 percent for blacks and 213 percent for Hispanics. Researchers noted that the number of black and Hispanic students with passing scores had increased, although their pass rates were still relatively low.

Schneider said the achievement gaps between disadvantaged and advantaged groups have narrowed somewhat but remain large. The issue now before Congress is whether the federal No Child Left Behind law, which emphasizes testing to monitor school progress, is the best way to ensure all children get the skills and concepts they need.

The Schools & Learning page will go on hiatus until school resumes in August.

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