Democracy Dies in Darkness

Local | Perspective

For local school systems struggling to close the achievement gap, the answer may be closer than they know

September 11, 2018 at 7:04 PM

Mary Johnson, an educator in the District, helps a student with a math problem. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Benjamin Banneker, son of a freed slave, became a mathematician and astronomer in the 18th century.

No doubt he’d be disappointed at what has transpired in the District to the descendants of the city he helped lay out in 1791. Today, after more than 250 years of “progress,” not everyone is progressing.

Only 17 percent of black students in the District scored proficient in math, compared with 68.8 percent of Asian students and 80.1 percent of white students, according to recently released scores on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers standardized test, more commonly known as PARCC.

Students in grades 3 through 8 and high school take PARCC assessments in English and mathematics each spring.

Banneker, born free during slavery, taught himself math — fractions, division, multiplication — while thousands of black boys and girls in 21st century Washington can’t seem to learn as well in a school system that spends on average $27,000 per student each year.

At NASA in 1962, three black female mathematicians — Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan — were doing some of the complex rocket science that helped astronaut John Glenn become the first American to orbit Earth. In a bold move at self-education, Vaughn disobeyed Jim Crow laws of the era and borrowed an engineering book from a whites-only section of a library in Virginia. She used it to teach herself and the other women how to use a newly minted IBM calculating machine.

So awesome was their math prowess that colleagues sometimes referred to them as “computers in skirts.” Two years ago, a movie about their achievements made it to the big screen, “Hidden Figures.”

Yet today in Maryland — including Montgomery County and Prince George’s County, where NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is located — only 17.5 percent of black students in grades 3 through 8 are proficient in math, compared with 50.7 percent of white students and 67.5 percent of Asian students.

In Algebra 1, only 13.3 percent of Maryland’s black students were proficient compared with 52.3 percent of white students and 66.7 percent of Asian students.

“We need to get smarter and more sophisticated in our ability to assess students’ needs and their gaps and then properly model an intervention,” said Amanda Alexander, interim chancellor for D.C. Public Schools, in response to the test scores. “We have built systems for this in [D.C. Public Schools], and it is a matter of us implementing them.”

Who knows how long that will take?

Prince George’s schools interim chief executive Monica Goldson issued a statement saying that the test scores were just “one of many sets of indicators” of student achievement.

“We will continue to focus on supporting teachers and students, while engaging parents to prepare children for success after high school,” the statement said.

Sounds like doing the same thing, expecting different results.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, clearly disappointed with the test scores, announced last week that the PARCC test would no longer be administered in the state. A new test is being developed that ought to be ready by 2020, he said.

That’s one way to deal with the problem — although changing tests has never erased the racial achievement gap.

D.C. Council member David Grosso, who is the chairman of the Education Committee, told WUSA-TV (Channel 9) that the test scores highlighted the need to address the “root causes” of the low academic performance.

“The students who are living in poverty — who are dealing with adversity throughout the day — can’t come to school in a way that other students who don’t have those issues can,” Grosso said.

And exactly how many decades have we been hearing school officials talk about addressing that?

In Virginia, which uses the Standards of Learning (SOL) test, 64 percent of African American students were proficient in math compared with 84 percent of white students and 92 percent of Asian students. The racial achievement gap certainly appears to be smaller compared with the District and Maryland. On the other hand, Virginia expels and suspends black students at higher rates than the other jurisdictions. So those black students most likely to do poorly on the test may not have been around to take it.

Look at it this way: Based on test scores in the District and its surrounding suburbs, at least 75 percent of nearly 300,000 black K-12 public school students are doing poorly in math. This goes beyond just not knowing a denominator from a numerator. It means that critical thinking skills are being impaired; reasoning and problem-solving abilities are being underdeveloped.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be spotlighting the work of two mathematicians with track records for helping black students excel in math, regardless of their economic background.

One is Mary Johnson, a math tutor in Prince George’s County with a doctorate in math education from the University of Maryland.

She has devised an innovative way of teaching the subject — and it appears to be working. This summer, Johnson tutored students enrolled in the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation in Southeast. Students were tested at the start of the program and again when it ended. Some had moved ahead almost an entire school year in just a matter of months.

As a high school math teacher in the Norfolk area during the 1950s, Johnson mentored a student who became one of the first African Americans to earn a perfect score on the SAT. She knows her stuff.

The other is Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, a school that produces more African American students who earn MD and PhD degrees than any other in the country. Many of them come from the Washington area.

They are continuing a tradition that goes back hundreds of years, making certain that African Americans aren’t left behind.

It just might be that they have the answer for their fellow educators.

To read previous columns, go to

Courtland Milloy is a local columnist for The Washington Post, where he has worked since 1975. He has covered crime and politics in the District and demographic changes in Prince George's County, Md. He has also written for The Post's Style and Foreign sections.

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