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Blacks Battle Achievement Gap
Parents Unite to Make Sure Children Aren't Shortchanged

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 31, 2000; Page C01


Two years ago, Angela Hansen sat in the office of her son's elementary school, biting her tongue and fighting back the urge to be rude. The principal had just told her that African American students' reading scores were low at the Silver Spring school because nationally, "African American children don't do well on standardized tests."


Hansen, a lawyer who had always scored well, had a strong reaction: bad answer! She thought, "I'm as black as I want to be, and I test as well as most white folks!" Something was wrong, she decided, and she had to do something about it.


About that time, 20 miles away at South Lakes High School in Fairfax County, Georgetown University economist Richard America and University of Maryland anthropologist Tony Whitehead were chatting with other parents about whether black children were being challenged in the same way as white children. Why not get African American parents together to talk about it?


Like middle-class African Americans all over the country, Hansen, America and Whitehead had become increasingly troubled by the black-white achievement gap. The statistical fact that white students, on average, test better than black students has become, along with high-stakes testing, the most discussed and analyzed issue in American education, experts say.


Many middle-class African American parents around the country, particularly in the Washington area, are no longer just talking about it. They have organized groups of like-minded parents to examine what is going on in their often well-regarded suburban schools and to decide what can be done to make sure minority children are not shortchanged in subtle ways.


At Glenallan Elementary School in Silver Spring, Hansen soon learned that the principal, Ronnie Fields, had not meant to dismiss the need to close the gap. With the school's strong encouragement, Hansen helped organize Glenallan African American Parents (GAAP). They promoted enrichment activities, briefed parents on test-taking approaches and helped boost the percentage of black third-graders scoring satisfactory on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test from 13.6 percent in 1996 to 42.9 percent last year, Hansen said.


At South Lakes High, parents organized the African American Student Achievement Committee. It has been meeting regularly for more than a year to find ways to stimulate minority achievement through online communication among families and more school appreciation of the power of high expectations for minority students.


Confronting Biases Whitehead said he wanted to help low-income students learn to succeed at a demanding school such as South Lakes High and to help teachers confront their harmful biases.


"As an educator myself, I had to face the fact that I had certain preferences for certain kinds of students that might have led to differential treatment," he said.


On a national level, groups such as the Black Alliance for Educational Options have been formed by middle-class parents and educators eager to close the gap for all students. They have encouraged a flood of research efforts, such as a consortium of affluent school districts, including Arlington County, that are studying the gap; the "Closing the Gap" report of the Washington-based Council for Basic Education and the Racine, Wis.-based Johnson Foundation; and the New York-based College Board's National Task Force on Minority High Achievement.


The idea, particularly among parents, is not to wait for social scientists and policymakers to decide what the problem is but to get inside their schools so that teachers, students and other parents are aware that there is a problem and are more likely to solve it.


This new activity stems from data that have stunned educators and parents. Social scientists have theorized for many decades that minority scores on standardized tests were lower than white scores because minority parents on the average had less money and less education than white parents. Since those parents could not afford private schools or homes in neighborhoods with good public schools, and because they were not equipped to guide and inspire their children as well as college-educated parents, their children were at a disadvantage.


Experts were reassured to see the test-score differences narrowing as each generation of black parents became more affluent and better educated than the last.


But data showed that the children of middle-class black parents still scored below the children of middle-class white parents. The 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress 12th-grade reading score, for instance, showed the black-white gap larger for students with a parent with a college degree than it was for students whose parents had no high school diploma.


When the controversial book "The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life" suggested in 1994 that this was partly the result of blacks having less innate intellectual ability than whites, interest in the gap erupted into a series of studies, conferences and books that have raised the discussion to a level never before seen.


Further research has discredited the theory of innate intellectual differences, but social scientists have continued to look for other causes. African American parents and educators also have continued to demand more action to explain and close the gap.


"My judgment is that the issue of equity is the most pressing issue in American education today," said Roger Wilkins, history professor at George Mason University and a newly appointed member of the D.C. Board of Education who will take office this week. "To the extent that it focuses people's attention on the need to focus on issues of equity, the emphasis on the gap is important."


Explanations for the gap are numerous and complex, as attempts to determine cause and effect in the behavior of millions of people always are. The most complete and readable collection of research on the matter, the 1998 Washington-based Brookings Institution report "The Black-White Test Score Gap," offers an assortment of possible reasons.


Comparing middle-class black and white families just by income levels, for instance, might disguise the fact that the black family, newly arrived in suburbia, might be more burdened with debt and less likely to have affluent and educated family members, such as grandparents, who might influence the children's academic achievement. One study in the Brookings report said "our results imply that it takes at least two generations for changes in parental socioeconomic status to exert their full effect on parenting practices" that affect school achievement.


Harvard University researcher Ronald F. Ferguson says that black students appear to care more about teachers' opinions than white students, and teacher expectations for black children are on the average lower than for white students.


Threat Identified Stanford researchers Claude M. Steele and Joshua Aronson describe in the Brookings report their work on "stereotype threat," a tendency on the part of high-performing black college students to do worse on a test when distracted by worries that the results might be used to draw conclusions about their ethnicity.


"When the stereotype in question demeans something as important to one as intellectual ability is to good students, it can impair performance," the researchers conclude.


And there is much in the Brookings report about the theory that bright black students reject schoolwork to avoid being chided by friends for "acting white." A recent book by University of California at Berkeley linguist John H. McWhorter has taken this notion much further, saying that African Americans of all ages are burdened by a widespread anti-intellectualism.


The Brookings report comes to no firm conclusion about what is going on. However, the editors of the report, Christopher Jencks of Harvard University and Meredith Phillips of the University of California at Los Angeles, point to the kind of research they think would be most useful. They said family income and educational background are likely to prove less important than "the way family members and friends interact with one another and with the outside world."


Differences in resources between predominantly black and predominantly white schools are also likely to be less crucial than "the way black and white children respond to the same classroom experiences, such as having a teacher of a different race or having a teacher with low expectations for students who read below grade level," they said.


Parents on Alert Those are precisely the issues that many black parents are looking at in their schools. Alma Gill, whose son attends school in Howard County, said she is bothered by teachers who complain that he asks too many questions in class. He is a bright, curious learner, she said, who she thinks would have been designated as gifted and been better nurtured by teachers had he been white.


"But that's all right," she said. "We're doing it at home and encouraging him to always try his best."


Virginia Walden, a D.C. parent who actively promotes charter schools, said, "My personal feeling is that expectations from society, including our educational community, are not as great for middle-class black kids."


Denise Nichols, a Maryland resident whose three sons attended the D.C. private school Sidwell Friends, said she has watched carefully to see whether they were treated differently from white students but is convinced that the school has been as welcoming and as challenging for them as for other students.


Other African Americans, she said, have occasionally asked whether she is worried about "how they are going to grow up to be strong black men" if they are educated in a predominantly white, upper-middle class school. She said that's no problem, because they have a strong role model in their father, Fannie Mae executive Alvin Nichols.


At South Lakes High one recent Monday night, more than 20 parents and faculty members gathered in one of the school's small, colorfully decorated cafeterias to discuss expectations for their children. Some complimented Principal Realista Rodriquez on her efforts to draw more students into the school's new International Baccalaureate program. But most of the parents said they had encountered educators who did not realize the power of ill-considered judgments.


Leila Head, for instance, recalled a teacher who told students "it was okay to get C's" and seemed reluctant to call on black students in class.


America urged members to be "constructive and creative" and pushed for solutions that would exploit the community's growing use of e-mail and other computer services. The middle-class parents were concerned about students who drop out, particularly those among the school's 300 African American students who are not doing well.


"I don't want to sound elitist, but we want to find a respectful way of reaching out to encourage people who don't seem to be quite navigating the system," America said later.


At Glenallan Elementary, Hansen and other black parents pushed for several changes and were pleased that the co-presidents of the PTA enthusiastically welcomed them to the executive board. Principal Fields focused on hiring talented faculty, increasing teacher training and raising expectations for all children. Preparation for state tests became more intense. GAAP, the black parents group, met with district testing experts and distributed sample tests and test preparation books to other parents.


The Glenallan Elementary parents also organized some of their own after-school activities, including preparation sessions for the state MSPAP test conducted by two fathers, Hansen said.


The apparent result, the threefold increase in the percentage of black third-graders scoring satisfactory in reading, convinced Hansen and many other parents that their work had paid off.


"The parents had a huge impact," Fields said.


Said Hansen, "In all but one category, the African Americans in third- and fifth-grades MSPAP scores reflected a narrowing of the gap."


There were benefits, Hansen said, in just having children know "that we were having meetings and making plans so they would do better in school. . . . We have to be willing to insist that the system that is designed to teach all children does, in fact, teach all children."

2000 The Washington Post Company


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Copyright 1998, 199, 2000, 2001  by David N. Shearon