Racial gap in reading widens; State's blacks score satisfactorily on tests at half rate whites do; 'No longer acceptable'; Frustrated educators to discuss possible solutions today


Despite years of efforts to boost minority performance, the gap in early reading achievement between black pupils and white pupils has actually widened in Maryland in the 1990s -- as it has in much of the country.

Black pupils continue to score satisfactorily at only half the rate white pupils do on the state's third- and fifth-grade reading exams, a disparity that educators and parents say frustrates attempts to reduce racial gaps in such areas as college entrance rates and job opportunities.

"This is the educational issue for the first part of the next century," says Robert A. Kronley, senior consultant to the Southern Education Foundation and author of a recent report by the group on minority achievement in Maryland. "There are too many kids who are being left behind."

The lag in achievement is by no means limited to poor students in Maryland's urban schools. Racial gaps in well-off Carroll and Howard counties are almost identical to the statewide gap.

While third-grade reading scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams have improved for black and white pupils since 1994, the gap between those two groups has grown larger in all six Baltimore-area school systems -- as well as in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

"Yes, there have been gains, but there is still a substantial achievement gap," says Barbara Dezmon, a Baltimore County educator who is chairwoman of the state's EducationThat Is Multicultural Advisory Council. "It's like a silent cancer, and we can't afford to ignore it."

Today, educational and political leaders from across Maryland will gather in College Park to begin the latest of many drives to close the gap -- one that might produce more results than those in the past because it enjoys the strong support of the governor and the state schools superintendent.

"We need to say that this is no longer acceptable," says state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

"We need to hear more strategies so we can learn the right things to do."

It's not that local school systems or the state have been ignoring the problem.

In just the past school year, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties set up task forces on minority student achievement. Last month, when the state held its annual recognition ceremony, it gave for the first time monetary awards to only those schools that had produced test score gains school-wide and for all minority groups.

And amid the growing statewide gap, bright spots can be found here and there.

For example, in Montgomery County, a new program that provides all first- and second-graders with 90 minutes of continuous reading instruction in smaller classes seems to be paying off. While the reading achievement gap largely remains, scores for all racial groups of pupils improved, and black and Hispanic pupils showed the greatest gains at the end of the first year.

Baltimore County schools also appear to have made inroads. In the past two years, the achievement gap between white and black pupils has been cut in half on the system's first- and second-grade reading exams.

Baltimore County educators hope these same gains will soon appear on the state's reading tests, largely because Baltimore County's early reading instruction has moved to a more unified, phonics-laden curriculum in the past three years.

"All of the teachers are finally speaking a common language when it comes to teacher reading," says Joyce Tyson, a second-grade teacher at Winand Elementary School in Randallstown.

The 710-student, mostly black elementary has posted some of the largest reading gains in Baltimore County. Using the county's new reading program, Winand's early elementary teachers rely on a phonics-intensive textbook series published by Open Court, and parents have been hired to serve as classroom reading assistants and tutors.

"What we're doing here at Winand shows that with good teaching and support from the parents, all kids can learn how to read," says Roberta Alexander, the school's Parent Teacher Association president. "It's as simple as that."

But for many schools across Maryland and the rest of the country, bridging the racial gap hasn't happened. Though progress was made in the 1980s, the disparity in test scores between black pupils and white pupils has remained the same or worsened in most of the country in the past five to 10 years.

"The gap was narrowing, and then it stopped," says Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington. "We've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go."

According to Jennings, the most direct means to improve the performance of black students is what's occurring at Winand: efforts to ensure good instruction.

"The simple fact of the matter is that kids who are in schools with large minority populations are often not getting the best teachers," says Jennings, who has served as a consultant to the State Department of Education on reform. "If there is something to concentrate on to reduce the gap, it's doing whatever you can to get your best teachers into schools where they're needed the most."

Across Maryland's 24 districts, the schools with the most poor minority students tend to be those with the youngest -- and least experienced -- teachers, according to recent state and local reports on teacher experience. That means reading instruction is often based more on what these teachers have just learned in college than on years of classroom practice -- and that often doesn't include a firm grounding in how to teach reading.

"In most of the college textbooks, they do not tell you how to teach reading," says Ora Sterling King, a reading researcher and education professor at Coppin State College. "Teaching reading is not something you learn by osmosis. Someone has to teach you how to teach reading.

"Many children aren't learning to read because their teachers were never taught to teach reading," King says.

Grasmick suggests that better early childhood education is a critical step to ensuring black pupils are more prepared to start school and learn how to read. She has proposed that the state create new incentives for child care centers to offer better educational programs.

Lower minority achievement in Maryland and the rest of the nation isn't limited to poor children and high-poverty schools.

The gap in test scores between black students and white students extends to even the wealthiest schools, and school systems in such well-off areas as Howard County have tried programs over the years to try to correct the gap, often without many positive results.

"The challenge is that even middle-class black children are not reading as much or as frequently as their white counterparts," says Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and co-author of a book profiling academically successful black males.

"If a child is not reading on level or above level in third grade, we can expect that child will be even farther behind in seventh grade and beyond."

Hrabowski suggests that lagging test scores among middle-class minority students might be caused partly by different expectations for black students and cultural differences. He says teachers might need to learn skills to reach children from different backgrounds.

But he and other educators acknowledge that the trend is difficult to completely explain.

Last summer, 14 school districts across the country with large middle-class black student populations formed what they call the Minority Student Achievement Network to study the problem, looking at such issues as motivation, expectations and cultural differences.

No Maryland districts are involved in the study, but state educators say they plan to watch it closely for answers and reform ideas.

"We don't fully understand the gap, and we don't want to construct solutions that might be both premature and wrongheaded," says Richard J. Steinke, deputy state superintendent for school improvement. "But we need to weave together a significant state agenda on this issue."

Pub Date: 10/19/99

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