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.

"There are differences in preparation that will take years to erase," said Wayne Camara, the College Board's vice president for research.

In Montgomery, for instance, 65 percent of all white 2006 graduates took at least one Advanced Placement exam. The corresponding figure for blacks: 27 percent.

Recruiting black and Hispanic students into advanced math classes has been a top goal of Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast since he took the job in 1999. From 2001 to 2006, the share of the county's black students taking accelerated math in the sixth grade rose from 15 percent to 22 percent. Black student SAT scores should rise, Weast said, when those students reach high school.

"It's all about taking the right courses," Weast said. "And that's been particularly important for the Hispanics and the African Americans, because historically, they have not been in the right courses."

The disparity between blacks' and whites' SAT scores is larger now than it was 10 years ago in Montgomery and Fairfax, although it has shrunk recently in Fairfax. The gap approaches 400 points in Montgomery and 300 points in Fairfax. Test participation, an equally prized goal, has risen in both counties over that time. In both counties, students of all races have scored above state and national averages for their racial categories.

"There is a gap," said Pat Murphy, an assistant superintendent who oversees testing in Fairfax. "But we believe we're narrowing that gap, and we believe we're moving in the right direction."

The top scores among black students in Montgomery this year came from Churchill High School in Potomac: 1600 points, 221 points below the schoolwide average for white students. Twenty-two of 32 black graduates took the test; small black populations at many top schools complicate the task of analyzing and comparing scores.

Charisse Eubanks, mother of two black Churchill students, said it should be obvious to parents that sending their children to a top school is not enough. Parents must learn the system: enroll their children in advanced courses, see that they get good grades, take the right tests and earn the right scores, and "aggressively" encourage performance.

"Education starts at home," Eubanks said. "And I think that far too often, that's where the ball is being dropped -- at home."

Other black parents agree.

"Simply attending a high-performing school doesn't guarantee success," said Bertra McGann, mother of two students at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, where 444 points separate the average score of black students from that of white students.

McGann said the gap is about more than race: Even at affluent schools, it's about differences in family income, education and class.

Black students who score poorly on such measures as the SAT might have parents who "lack the capacity to guide and prepare the students for the college admissions process and also the college preparation process," she said. If those students "can be convinced of the link between a college education and the quality of life, then I think we could see the achievement gap narrow."

Christopher Jencks, a professor of social policy at Harvard University who co-wrote a book about the achievement gap, notes other societal forces that can drag down black students at affluent schools. Black teens in well-heeled suburbs tend to socialize with children less affluent than themselves, to the detriment of their academic goals, he said. And black families might be less gripped by the "rat-race mentality" that sweeps up most parents in such suburbs as Potomac.

"Being behind is discouraging," he said. "And the easiest thing to do when you're behind is say, 'Oh well, who cares about this race anyway?' "

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