|Race gap endures on MCAS results
Minority leaders, state plan talks
education officials, alarmed by two years of consistent gaps between minority
and white students on the statewide MCAS tests, will soon meet with minority
leaders to seek solutions to one of the most persistent dilemmas facing
Results by race released yesterday on the 1999 test showed that Latino and
black students lagged behind whites in every category on the test and for every
The news augurs a dismal future for minorities when the Massachusetts
Comprehensive Assessment System exam becomes a requirement for graduation in
three years: Eight percent of white eighth-graders - the class of 2003 - failed
the English section of the exam compared with 39 percent of Latino students and
28 percent of African-Americans.
In high school the news is bad for all racial and ethnic groups, but there
was still a significant gap between white and minority students. About 45
percent of white 10th-graders failed math, 80 percent of blacks did, and 85
percent of Hispanics failed.
''Am I distressed by this? No. Am I surprised by this? No,'' said Michael
Sentance, Governor Paul Cellucci's education adviser. ''These are scores that
have been reflected by tests given by the state in more than a decade. We've
seen these numbers before and schools have not taken steps to address them.''
State Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll said he is convening members
of the Governor's African American Commission, the Legislative Black Caucus, and
other Latino and black community leaders early next week to discuss the scores
and the issues that are preventing so many minority students from excelling on
''There is a lot of work going on in schools right now to align frameworks,
to prepare for assessments,'' said Board of Education chairman James A. Peyser.
''We all hope that will yield positive improvements. We also know that even if
those efforts yield positive results, we're going to have to make special and
highly targeted efforts to make sure those students, especially 10th-graders,
are given the support they need to do better.''
However, Latino and black leaders reached yesterday said that if the
education department wants to help Latino and black children, it should do away
with the MCAS graduation requirement until their scores improve. In
Massachusetts, as in other states, minorities are challenging high-stakes
standardized tests, saying they are unfair to minorities, many of whom are poor
or speak another language at home.
''The figures reflect something that every Latino in the state has known for
years,'' said Miren Uriarte, research associate at the Gaston Institute for
Latino Community Development and Public Policy. ''We've known about this
disparity. MCAS only underscores what's out there.''
A huge problem is that they aren't being taught what's on the test, she said.
''For 10th-graders to pass the math exam, you need a certain amount of math
instruction. You need Algebra II. Latinos and blacks aren't getting that level
of math. So structurally, kids aren't getting what they need.''
Jaime Rodriguez, president of the Massachusetts chapter of the National
Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, said schools are shortchanging children of
''In all of Latin America we take exams, and we don't have high failure
rates. So what's going on?,'' he said. ''Our kids - they aren't stupid, they're
not lazy. So it comes back on the schools. They're not giving our children a
The Rev. Gregory F. Groover, chairman of the Black Ministerial Alliance's
education committee, called the results ''the final wake-up call for us black
The 60-church coalition is in the midst of a drive to have 40 churches
establish after-school academic centers; 16 will be set up by September.
But while churches can help mobilize parents and communities, schools need
equitable resources to close the test-score gap, said Groover, pastor of the
Charles Street AME Church in Roxbury.
''Children are the victims,'' Groover said. ''They only learn what they're
taught. If they don't have the resources, the gap will never be narrowed.''
Groover said he welcomes the Department of Education's scrutiny of the
achievement gap and said he and other pastors are willing to sit down with
education officials to discuss ways to solve the problem.
''We need to recognize that schools cannot do it by themselves,'' he said.
''This is a major society problem where one institution cannot address it alone,
and it cannot address it in a vacuum, independent and apart from other
Worcester schools superintendent James Caradonio said poverty, low attendance
rates, and transient students are the three major factors keeping minority
students in his district from doing well in school and passing the exam.
No Worcester students of color in eighth grade scored in the advanced
categories for English or history. No Latino or black students scored in the
advanced category in math. Only 2 percent of white students in the eighth grade
scored in advanced in English and only 3 percent scored in advanced in math.
''Poverty gets in the way of kids coming to school, they don't have good
housing and hunting for housing causes mobility, and that takes you out of
school,'' Caradonio said. ''There are challenges and there are realities. We're
finding very clearly that the difference is one of low income; that low academic
achievement is related to low economic status.''
Bridging The Gap
Researchers can’t offer a definitive explanation for the
achievement gap, but they’ve developed a host of theories, some more widely
accepted than others.
More minorities live in low-income families than do whites, and growing up poor
is a well-known obstacle to learning. But poverty can’t explain the lagging
academic performance of minorities in all cases; even schools in middle-class
communities struggle to close the performance gap between whites and others.
Study after study has shown that compared to whites, a disproportionately small
number of African American and Hispanic students take challenging academic
courses. The reasons vary. Some schools rigidly track kids into such courses,
using test scores or grades to winnow students and ensure that only the best get
in. Other schools open tough courses to anyone, but minority students choose not
to enroll. And in some urban schools with predominantly minority enrollments,
there are only a handful of Advanced Placement offerings—if any.
In 1986, researchers John Ogbu and Signithia Fordham described how low-achieving
black students view peers who do well in school as “acting white.” The
phenomenon has been widely documented since then, but it’s still highly
controversial. Some experts now contend that peer pressure may be more of a
symptom of the achievement gap than a cause: Students may disparage peers simply
because they’re ashamed of their own poor performance.
It’s well known that schools with large numbers of poor, immigrant, or migrant
children have higher turnover than others. Obviously, kids who jump from school
to school find it hard to keep up. But research has also shown that instruction
slows for all students in schools with high rates of turnover. In one 1996 study
of Chicago schools with transient enrollments, researchers found that by 5th
grade, instruction was almost a year behind that of schools with more stable
Because evidence of the achievement gap is found even in tots just entering
kindergarten, some experts are looking at differences in parenting styles as a
potential cause. Researchers, however, don’t know enough about parenting
practices in the early years of childhood to come to any firm conclusions.
Minority children have less access to good preschool and day-care programs. The
New York City-based College Board notes that in 1996 only 63 percent of African
American parents with young children enrolled them in preschool. The figure was
only 36 percent for Hispanic parents.
New research indicates that children in schools with many minority and poor
students are more likely to be taught by underqualified teachers. Those findings
are emerging just as other studies are beginning to quantify the damage that an
ineffective teacher can do. Research by William Sanders and his colleagues at
the University of Tennessee suggest that three consecutive years of bad teachers
can significantly hamper a child’s learning over the long run.
In the early 1990s, Stanford University sociologist Claude Steele found that
black students performed worse on standardized tests when asked to identify
their race. Steele theorized that minority students scored low because they were
anxious that they would do poorly and confirm negative stereotypes about their
race—a phenomenon he tagged as “stereotype threat.” Steele suggested that
such anxiety-ridden students may react defensively and downplay the importance
of an academic task. No one has tested this idea in precollegiate classes, but
some experts say it could explain why average scores are low for black students
on some standardized tests. It also may explain why they are sometimes reluctant
to take advanced classes.
Teachers are taught to believe that all children can learn, but their classroom
experiences sometimes convince them otherwise. According to some experts and
parents, veterans of teaching low-achieving minorities eventually come to expect
less of these students than others and discourage them from taking advanced
classes. Research, however, is thin on whether teacher expectations create a
kind of self-fulfilling prophecy for minority students.
In a study of more than 3,000 children released last year, black and Hispanic
children spent an average of three to four hours a day watching television,
compared with an average of two hours and 22 minutes a day for white children.
Experts once blamed much of the achievement gap on an inherent bias in
standardized tests against African Americans and other minorities. That bias may
exist, researchers say today, but its effect has been exaggerated. “If any
parent is worried about the tests being biased and then gets a chance to see
what’s on the tests, most would say, ‘This is stuff I would like my kids to
know,’ ” says Meredith Phillips, co- author of The Black-White Test Score
In 1994, a fiercely debated book called The Bell Curve, by Charles Murray
and the late Richard Herrnstein, resurrected the explosive suggestion that
achievement differences among racial groups stem from genetics. Since then, the
notion has been widely refuted by scholars from a range of disciplines. Six
years later, however, The Bell Curve still casts a shadow over
discussions on the achievement gap.
By: Doreen Iudica Vigue, Globe Staff, 5/19/2000
Anand Vaishnav and Cindy
Rodriguez of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.
This story ran on page B01 of the Boston
Globe on 5/19/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.