Student Learning Divide Narrows

County Council President Michael Knapp.
County Council President Michael Knapp. (Timothy Jacobsen - )
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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A new report from a county oversight agency gives the Montgomery County school system mixed marks in closing the achievement gap between higher- and lower-performing groups of students, a goal that has defined the nine-year tenure of Superintendent Jerry D. Weast.

The 74-page report, issued yesterday by the Office of Legislative Oversight, offers a rare independent critique of Weast's decade-long effort to "raise the bar and close the gap" in the 137,000-student school system. It concludes that the school system has had success in narrowing the gap, but not across the board.

In some areas, such as kindergarten literacy, the disparity between students of different demographic groups has almost disappeared. In others, such as third-grade reading and Advanced Placement testing, a gap remains, but scores have risen dramatically for all students. In a few areas, such as SAT scores and student suspension, the gap has widened.

County Council President Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) said he requested the analysis so that when council members talk about the gap, "we are all talking about the same thing." Performance disparities among student subgroups are the defining issue in public education these days, not only for Weast and the Montgomery school system but for the nation as a whole, under the federal mandate No Child Left Behind.

Knapp said his goal was not to second-guess Weast's efforts to close the gap, the centerpiece of his superintendency in Montgomery. "This is in no way a 'gotcha' statement," Knapp said.

Still, some within the school system said they considered the report an intrusion into their affairs. In a memo Wednesday to the oversight agency, Larry Bowers, chief operating officer of the county school system, hinted at this: "We believe that it is the responsibility of the Board of Education to establish the school system's priorities."

Board of Education President Nancy Navarro said the report "reiterates the sense of urgency that I know I, for one, have been very vocal about. I feel confident that we're on the right track. Do I believe that we are there yet? Do I believe it will not be a continued challenge? No."

Understanding the achievement gap is important, the report states, as the County Council reviews the money it has invested in multimillion-dollar initiatives funded over the past several years with the aim of closing the gap. The initiatives include class-size reduction in the primary grades and full-day kindergarten.

Some of the school system's most impressive gains have come in those early grades. The share of black kindergarten students who could read at grade level rose from 52 percent in 2002 to 90 percent in 2007, just below the countywide average of 93 percent. On the statewide Maryland School Assessment, third-grade reading proficiency rose from 40 percent to 75 percent for Hispanics and from 48 percent to 73 percent for African Americans between 2003 and 2007, narrowing -- but not erasing -- the gap.

Test scores in the upper grades show slower progress. Black achievement rose in eighth-grade math, for example, to 43 percent proficiency in 2007, up from 29 percent in 2003. In comparison, proficiency among white students rose from 75 percent to 84 percent in the same period.

The biggest setbacks were in two areas, SAT scores and student suspension, that have drawn less public attention in recent years because they don't relate directly to the No Child Left Behind proficiency goals.

On the SAT, the gap between black and Hispanic performance and white and Asian performance has grown, although minority participation in the test has increased, according to an analysis of scores from 2001 to 2005.

Black and Latino secondary students were suspended at a higher rate in 2007 than in either 2003 or 2000, and they were suspended at a substantially higher rate than whites or Asians, the report found. About 15 percent of black students -- and about 3 percent of white students -- were suspended in 2007.

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