The final page has been turned on D.C. Public Schools’ 2015 calendar. But 2016 begins with the same uncompromising problem: the school system’s huge racial achievement gap.
The tests, known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exams, or PARCC, showed that just 25 percent of D.C. students in the third through eighth grades met or exceeded expectations on new standardized tests in English. Only 24 percent met a new math benchmark.
And that was the good news.
Were it not for white test-takers in this majority-minority school system, the results would have been even worse.
Overall English and math proficiency rates reached 25 percent and 24 percent, respectively, only because white students, who make up 12 percent of the school system, scored proficiency rates of 79 percent in English and 70 percent in math.
The stark truth: Black students, who constitute 67 percent of the school population, had a 17 percent proficiency rate in both English and math, trailing Hispanics, who comprise 17 percent of the school population and recorded proficiency rates of 21 percent in English and 22 percent in math.
Translation: Beginning at least in the third grade, an overwhelming majority of black students are on a track that leads in the wrong direction — away from college-level work or a career after high school graduation.
Let that sink in.
The picture isn’t better for the city’s high school students. Of those who took a new geometry test, only 10 percent met proficiency standards. Twenty-five percent met proficiency standards in the new English test.
Again, the presence of white students prevented the dismal high school results from being even worse. Fifty-two percent of white students scored proficient or better in geometry, while 82 percent were college-ready in English.
Stack those rates against the 8 percent of Hispanic students and 4 percent of black students scoring proficient in geometry, and the 25 percent of Hispanic and 20 percent of black students reaching that mark in English.
Anyway you slice it, in this multiracial school system, black students bring up the rear.
Don’t blame the tests. They measure where the students are. Besides, the new standardized tests weren’t instruments imposed on the city from on high. A consortium of 11 states and the District developed the PARCC tests.
The tests only underscore what has been known for years: that the educational gap between the District’s white students and students of color is not a crack but a chasm. And African Americans and Hispanics are on the side that leads in the direction of lower earnings, part-time or dead-end jobs, and lives of turbulence.
Usually around this time in any conversation about schools, finger-pointing and the blame game get underway. “Who’s responsible for this mess?” “Whom can we hang it on?”
Time out. Let’s start the new year by dispensing with comforting lies and facing up to unpleasant truths.
Henderson and her teachers are not chiefly to blame for the District’s cavernous racial achievement gap. School officials didn’t make white kids more than four times likelier to be proficient in English than black students, and 10 times likelier in math, as the website DCist pointed out.
It helps when students go to school from homes where parental supervision is strong, where respect for teachers and other students is taught, and where getting a good education is valued. It helps, too, if students are exposed at home to correctly spoken English, and where homework must be done and checked for errors.
And it helps when students don’t enter the classroom burdened by adult-level problems, like the fear and grief associated with acts of violence. Test scores improve when students go to school feeling secure — both economically and socially — and ready to learn from teachers with high expectations.
Once again, I mount the journalistic soapbox on which I have stood for more than 20 years: A good school system is crucial, but it can do only so much. Our city will rise or fall on the quality and abilities of students coming out of our public schools.
This new year, responsibility for a turnaround rests not only on principals and teachers but also on mothers and fathers behaving like supportive, participating parents, and a community — business, religious and social leaders, including elected officials — bent on providing all that is necessary, both school resources and family support, to close one of the widest racial academic achievement gaps in the country. A city as intellectually, culturally and, dare I say it, spiritually enriched as the District should adopt that goal as a New Year’s resolution to be kept.
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