NAACP wants council oversight on achievement gap

The Anne Arundel County branch of the NAACP has asked the County Council to put pressure on the county school system, in hopes of accelerating an agreement to close the achievement gap between white and black students.

Jacqueline Allsup, president of the county National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said in testimony before the council Monday that while the school system is "moving in the right direction" progress is coming "way too slowly." Allsup said the school system should concentrate its efforts on elementary school education.

In a 2005 agreement, the county school system and the U.S. Justice Department signed a memorandum of agreement to address inequalities after local civil rights groups and parents filed a complaint to the Office for Civil Rights about disparities in county schools.

The county Board of Education agreed to close the achievement gap by 2012 in several areas: graduation and dropout rates; Maryland school assessments; high school assessments; access and success in more rigorous instruction; special-education identification and placement; discipline referrals; suspensions and expulsions; and community engagement.

While the school system has made big strides in some areas — for example, the expulsions of African-American students have decreased by 263 percent since the 2005-2006 school year — the gap in the graduation rate has widened.

The disparity has steadily decreased on state standardized tests in math; while the gap on state reading and English tests decreased at first, it has remained flat at 21 percent over the past two years.

Carlesa Finney, director of the school system's office of equity assurance and human relations, told the council she's confident the school system will see "an acceleration" in improvement "in the next few years."

The school system has undertaken several initiatives to close the achievement gap. It has added outreach specialists, established academic achievement steering committees in schools that did not meet federal benchmarks as part of federal No Child Left Behind laws and implemented "differentiated instruction," enabling teachers to plan strategically in order to reach the needs of diverse students.

Councilman Daryl Jones said the "most appropriate role" for the council is to ensure that the agreement is updated on a yearly basis to address issues. Council Chairman C. Edward Middlebrooks asked for the NAACP's presentation to be forwarded to the new council after next month's election. The seven-member council will have at least five new members after the election.

Eugene Peterson, a member of the county school board, said making progress on the achievement gap should be "one of the highest priorities."

"We're not living up to our responsibility," said Peterson.

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