Area Schools' Success Obscures Lingering Racial SAT Gap

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 10, 2007

SAT scores at the Washington region's top high schools show an achievement gap between blacks and the rest of the student population -- a gap that is often masked by the overall performance of the schools.

White students in the spring graduating class of Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda -- the top performer in Montgomery County -- averaged 1893 out of a possible 2400 points on the SAT. The 13 black students tested averaged 1578, more than 300 points lower.

At Yorktown, Arlington County's leader, white students averaged 1804 on the SAT; black students averaged 1470. Black students at Severna Park High, the top performer in Anne Arundel County, averaged 1336, while white students' average was 1646.

Despite the gap, black students in the Class of 2007 scored well at some of the region's most prestigious high schools; at a few, black students topped the overall national average, 1511, on the best-known college entrance test. Solid scores on the SAT or the rival ACT are all but essential to students aspiring to competitive universities.

But none of the 47 regular high schools in Montgomery and Fairfax counties, the largest school systems in Maryland and Virginia, yielded a black student SAT average this year that met or beat the average for all students in those counties.

The racial achievement gap at affluent schools goes mostly unnoticed by parents, who seldom look beyond the high overall SAT averages. But it vexes black parents, who make the same sacrifices as their neighbors to buy homes in high-performing school districts and have the same aspirations for their children.

"I wanted my children to be in the school where the most people were focused toward higher education," said Pam Spearman, whose son is a junior at Severna Park High. But Spearman said she and other black parents in the Annapolis area suburb have come to recognize "that our kids have issues at school because achievement is not necessarily expected of them by fellow students -- black and white."

Nationwide, white students averaged 1579 on the SAT in 2007; blacks averaged 1287. The gap, 292 points, has scarcely changed in the past 10 years: It has increased by two points each on the reading and math sections, which were joined last year by a new writing assessment. The disparity has endured for decades and is perhaps the classic example of the racial achievement gap in public education. Critics have cited it as evidence of subtle racial bias in standardized testing.

Across the country, black parents have formed groups and set up Web sites to tackle the achievement gap. There are blogs offering advice on how to navigate school systems. Parents hold group study sessions to help prepare their children for the rigor of college-prep classes.

Last year, parents of black Severna Park students, who number about 80, formed a group called Falcon Flight. Through meetings with administrators, culturally motivated field trips and career-minded events, Spearman said, the parents hope to "help kids see the connection between their lives, their futures and their education." It's a connection most parents in affluent bedroom communities take for granted.

Teachers, parents and scholars cite several factors in the persistent gap separating blacks' and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics' scores from whites' and Asians' scores on the SAT.

Black students tend to arrive at elite high schools inadequately prepared for the SAT, according to directors of the College Board, which administers the test. And even in affluent communities, they don't take as rigorous courses as their white and Asian classmates; the wealthiest black students are no more likely to take calculus in high school, for example, than the poorest whites and Asians, a deficiency that points to a historic lack of access to the classes.

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