Hispanics, Blacks Narrow Math Gap

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 30, 2007

Fairfax County's black and Hispanic students have made gains in many state math tests, a sign local educators say is a positive step toward narrowing the achievement gap.

Sixty-seven percent of black students in county schools passed state Standards of Learning (SOL) math exams, up from 63 percent last year. Sixty-eight percent of Hispanic students earned passing scores, an increase from 65 percent last year.

The gains by Hispanic and black students on the SOL tests, used in Virginia to measure the progress of schools under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, are seen at nearly every grade level.

Math performance by both groups improved in fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh grades. The percentage of third-grade students who passed the exam, though, dipped compared with last year's test results.

Patrick Murphy, Fairfax County schools assistant superintendent for accountability, said that the scores are good news, but that administrators and teachers will continue to seek ways to help minority students thrive.

"This is a problem not only for our school system but other school systems and the nation," Murphy said. "The newest data is pointing in a positive direction, but it is something we will continue to work on and focus on. We are by no means done, and we are by no means satisfied."

Despite the gains in math, the Fairfax school system, along with 68 of its schools, fell short of meeting academic targets under the No Child law. Local educators said the ratings slide came largely as the result of tighter federal testing requirements for students with limited English skills.

Under a federal mandate enforced for the first time in the spring, thousands of beginners in English took the same reading test as native English-speaking peers. Previously, those students were tested on how quickly they were learning to read and speak English, not on their understanding of concepts such as metaphors and main ideas. The percentage of students passing reading tests decreased in grades 3 through 8.

School officials in Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington, among other districts, have called the requirement unfair to students who haven't yet mastered the language. Fairfax schools this year threatened to defy the U.S. Education Department but backed down because the county stood to lose $17 million in federal aid.

Federal officials and some advocacy groups say tough standards are the only way to ensure that immigrant students and others with limited English aren't overlooked.

The No Child law, which aims to identify blocks of struggling students and help educators improve programs, calls for annual reading and math tests in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.

Schools must show steady progress in improving scores over time. Those with a high percentage of students in poverty may be subject to sanctions including offering students the opportunity to transfer to a higher-performing school. Subsets of students, including ethnic minorities and students with limited English skills, also must show gains.

Many students learning English may struggle on reading tests but do better in math assessments written specifically with simple language, educators said.

Statewide, minority students also showed progress in math. According to the Virginia Department of Education, 70 percent of Hispanic students passed math tests, compared with 66 percent last year. The pass rate for black students increased from 62 percent in 2006 to 68 percent this year.

Fairfax, like school districts across the country, has long focused on boosting the performance of minority students. But in recent years the school system has worked to pinpoint its efforts by administering short tests throughout the year to determine which students need extra help and which skills they have had trouble mastering.

The schools also have hired instructional coaches to help teachers learn new techniques, and have designed lesson plans to help teachers reach children who have different learning styles.

"We're assessing kids' progress on a more regular basis and adjusting instruction to the needs of the kids," Murphy said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company