Achievement Gap Between Black, White Students Smaller in Va. Than Md.

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The achievement gap between black and white students is smaller in Virginia than in Maryland, according to a federal analysis released yesterday that illuminates how states compare on a key measure of academic disparity.

The comparison of math and reading scores for fourth- and eighth-grade public school students on the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress provided fresh detail on a problem that has plagued schools nationwide for decades. It also showed, as expected, an enormous achievement gap in the District.

The data from the testing program known as "the nation's report card" reemphasized a difficult question as Congress, educators and the Obama administration consider new reform measures: Can schools narrow the achievement gap and raise all scores?

On a 500-point scale, Virginia's black students trailed white students by significant margins in 2007: 23 points in fourth-grade math; 28 points in eighth-grade math; and 20 points in fourth- and eighth-grade reading. In Maryland, the corresponding gaps were even wider: 29 points in fourth-grade math; 36 points in eighth-grade math; 28 points in fourth-grade reading; and 27 points in eighth-grade reading.

In general, Virginia's achievement gaps were smaller than the national average, and Maryland's were roughly equivalent or larger. However, the test scores of black and white students in both states beat the national average.

"We are seeing both overall improvement in achievement and significant closing of the gaps across the board on the federally mandated tests," said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, "and that is where we are continuing to target our efforts."

In the District, black fourth-graders trailed their white peers by 54 points in math and 67 points in reading in 2007.

The consensus among educators is that the national challenge remains huge, even though the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law has forced states to pay more attention to minority student achievement. Many factors influence achievement gaps, experts say, including poverty and teacher quality.

"Closing these gaps will require the continued commitment of educators, parents and community leaders to high standards and accountability," Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright said in a statement. "The progress cited in [the] report provides encouragement that we can eliminate historic disparities even as we seek to raise the achievement of all students."

The report examined trends since the early 1990s, determining that Virginia and the District of Columbia had reduced the black-white achievement gap significantly in fourth-grade math since 1992 -- by eight points in D.C. public schools and six points in Virginia. The gap in that subject for Maryland fourth-graders shrank five points over the same period, a decline that was not considered statistically significant.

The report found that gaps were virtually unchanged in eighth-grade math in Virginia and Maryland from 1990 to 2007. (D.C. data for comparison were unavailable.)

In fourth-grade reading, the report found no significant reductions in the black-white gap in Virginia, the District or Maryland from 1992 to 2007. The same held true for the eighth-grade reading gap from 1998 to 2007.

Nationally, black students have narrowed some gaps since the 1990s. "We're not making nearly fast enough progress," said Kati Haycock, president of the D.C.-based Education Trust, which supports measures to help disadvantaged students. "At this rate, it's going to take several generations. These kids don't have that much time."

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement: "We must simultaneously raise the achievement of all students while closing gaps in achievement between different groups of students. This report shows that this can be done, but the progress has been too slow."

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