Minority students gaining on gap

The Baltimore Sun

The difference continues to shrink between how well Baltimore County's minority and white students are performing on state tests, mirroring a statewide five-year trend that shows a narrowing of the so-called achievement gap, according to an analysis of the recently released results of this spring's Maryland School Assessments.

With a growing expectation that school systems must customize learning to fit each child's developmental and educational needs, Baltimore County school officials point to consistent leadership and hard work as the answer to bridging the gap.

In an interview yesterday, Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said the system has no secret recipe for the progress it has experienced in bridging the achievement gap. Similarly, there is no quick fix to the larger, societal issues that educators must grapple with as they try to meet each child's needs, he said.

"You close the academic gap at the same time that you close the access gap, the economic gap, the employment gap," Hairston said. "There are influences over which we have no control, but we have to respond the best way we can. Every year is a different year, in terms of the variables."

Children in grades three through eight this spring took the reading and math exams as a requirement of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Signed into law in 2002, the federal law is designed to reduce the achievement gap for poor, minority and special education students.

In Baltimore County, the greatest strides in narrowing the achievement gap during the past five years have occurred among the county's elementary schools.

For instance, nearly 77 percent of third-grade white students passed the math exam in 2003, compared with 49 percent of black students and 57 percent of Hispanic children. This year, those numbers had improved to nearly 71 percent of black children, 78.2 percent of Hispanic students and 89.5 percent of white children passing the third-grade math test.

The gap between minority and white middle school students also continued to shrink, but at a much slower pace.

For example, about 51 percent of white eighth-graders passed the math exam in 2003, compared with 31 percent of Hispanic students and 18 percent of black students. This year, the gap between whites and blacks shrank by less than 1 percentage point (67.4 percent of whites and 35 percent of blacks passed the test), while the gap, for this test, grew between whites and Hispanics (67.4 percent of whites passed compared with about 43 percent of Hispanics).

These statistics parallel the statewide trend of greater progress being made in the early grades.

"It is more difficult to maintain the narrowing at the middle schools," state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said this week during a meeting with reporters. "In the middle schools, we're seeing that the gap is the same, but every group [of students] is making progress."

Rather than attributing Baltimore County's progress to any specific educational initiative, Hairston credited the school system's "Blueprint for Progress," an outline that spells out goals and strategies for improving. He also pointed to teachers and principals as the keys to the progress.

"We've stayed the course during the past seven years," Hairston said, referring to his tenure as superintendent of the 107,000-student school system. "That stability has enabled us to remain focused on understanding what the needs of our children are. Are we perfect? Absolutely not. But we try to get as much as possible accomplished in those 180 days that those children are with us."

Hairston took pride yesterday in the fact that three of Baltimore County's elementary schools were among the 10 highest-performing in the state. But he also emphasized that while federal law requires the statewide assessments, he cautions against putting too much emphasis on one set of test results as a measure of how well any school system is educating students.

"This is not about quotas or test scores, it's about quality work," Hairston said. "What we want to do is a better job of what we're already doing right."



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