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Closing the Gap

Black and Hispanic scores improve, yet middle school minority scores fall behind trend.

In the past six years, black and Hispanic test scores in city schools have made dramatic improvements — a change that school officials said was largely responsible for moving all but two of the city’s schools into "full accreditation" status.

Yet middle school minority students have not followed the trend, with eighth-grade scores in math, history and science falling behind in recent years. It’s a drift that concerns parents and school officials, who have been working on ways to increase the rigor of the city’s middle-school curriculum.

"It’s not a simple problem," said John Kennedy, president of the George Washington Middle School’s parent-teacher association. "It’s like when you push something down here and something else pops up there."

George Washington is one of the two Alexandria schools that has not been able to achieve accreditation status. Kennedy praised George Washington Principal Keisha Boggan for creating what he called a "laser focus" on improving minority test scores at the middle school, yet he added that making the right improvements will take time.

"When this year’s test scores come out, we’ll see how effective her efforts have been," he said. "Keisha is a realist, and she knows that improving minority test scores is going to take more attention than other areas."

OVERALL, MINORITY SCORES have improved dramatically since 2000 — a trend that was highlighted during last week’s School Board meeting. Monte Dawson, executive director of the division’s monitoring and evaluation services, explained that the past six years have seen a dramatic rise in test scores for black and Hispanic students in Alexandria. According to a one chart he presented to School Board members, third-grade scores for black students in English rose from 47 percent in 2000 to 75 percent in 2006. Fifth-grade scores for Hispanic students in Math rose from 57 percent in 2000 to 79 percent in 2006. Yet Dawson warned that rising federal standards present a moving target of success for school administrators.

"The standards for No Child Left Behind are higher with each year," said Dawson. "So we’ll have challenges ahead."

Dawson said that one of the problems was that teachers with the least amount of experience tended to teach black and Hispanic students, a phenomenon he said has been historically reflected in lower test scores in those groups. When School Board member Ronnie Campbell said that she spoke with one long-time teacher who expressed a strong desire to teach only advanced classes, Superintendent Rebecca Perry explained that experienced teachers were needed in a variety of classrooms.

"I don’t mind saying this on television," said Perry, motioning toward the Comcast camera in the School Board chamber on Beauregard Street. "I don’t want teachers that are not going to teach all of our children."

THE DIVISION’S DATA regarding increased scores were presented to board members in an April 26 memorandum titled "Talking Points for Increased Minority Student Achievement Discussion." Written by Assistant Superintendent John Grymes, the memo explains that a great deal of the division’s success over the past few years can be explained through the prism of increased test scores for black and Hispanic students.

"Overall, the improvement in scores is due to a substantial improvement in scores among blacks and Hispanics, who comprise the majority of the student population," wrote Grymes.

The assistant superintendent listed several programs that he said were effective in increasing scores for city students. One was the year-round calendar at Tucker Elementary School, where scores of black students in the third grade improved significantly more than those of third graders in other schools. Another program he mentioned as the reason for improved test scores was the Kindergarten Prep program, whose participants have fewer absences, better work habits and greater emotional development. Grymes also mentioned the laptop initiative, citing one study that showed 87 percent of high school students who qualify for free and reduced lunch indicated that the laptop computers helped them conduct research.

"The laptops address the very real digital divide in Alexandria," wrote Grymes. "Data shows that increased number of teachers are requesting Blackboard training and using it in significant ways."

IMPROVING MINORITY test scores is a topic many of the current School Board members campaigned on last year, and they were pleased to hear that scores improved. Yet several members said that the division has more work to do. Charles Wilson said that he would like to see more resources directed toward minority students.

"In affluent districts, black and Hispanic students should score higher than black and Hispanic students in poorer areas," said Wilson. "Yet districts like Richmond and Norfolk have higher minority test scores than Alexandria."

Wilson said he was concerned about the distribution of resources, which he said should be carefully monitored to make sure that black and Hispanic students are getting what he called a "fair chance at success." He said he was pleased that minority test scores have increased over the years, and he added that eighth-grade scores are usually more volatile than other grades.

"The middle school years can be difficult," said School Board member Claire Eberwein. "You’ve got the hormones kicking in."

Eberwein said that she examined the minority test score data in a meeting of the School Board’s Curriculum Committee, which she chairs. She said that the round-robin discussion was an open-ended one in which a number of strategies were considered.

"We even talked about love, didn’t we?" she asked.

"I didn’t," said Dawson.