Racial Testing Chasm Persists

Steve Brandt, Star Tribune, Oct. 11

The racial achievement gap isn’t just a Minneapolis schools problem. But the size and proportion of minority enrollment make it a bigger problem in Minneapolis than in other Minnesota school districts.

The issue has risen in prominence as minority students have expanded to majority status in the district. They comprised 73 percent of enrollment last school year.

Since late 2001, the district has had a 12-point plan for attacking the gap. There’s been some progress.

“We’ve seen gains, and the gap has been reduced fairly gradually,” said David Heistad, the district’s research director.

Nevertheless, most of the Minneapolis achievement gap remains for the next school board to address.

“The progress that we’re making is really too slow now,” Heistad added.

Theories abound for the gap’s causes. But the Minneapolis numbers indicate the difficulty of making it go away.

Take third-grade scores on the state reading test as an example.

Since 2000, the district has cut the white-Asian gap on tests by 25 percent. The white-American Indian gap has narrowed by 23 percent, and the white-black gap by 13 percent. The white-Latino gap increased slightly.

Yet the gap remains bigger in Minneapolis than statewide. Eighty percent of white third-graders in Minneapolis demonstrated reading proficiency in 2004’s state test, the same rate as whites statewide. Despite the improvements for students of color, the results for white students are still 45 percentage points better than Latino students, 41 points better than black students, 40 points better than Asian students and 30 points better than American Indian students.

Most of the city’s minority students are low-income, data indicate, while two-thirds of minority students statewide are not.

Why does the gap persist? Take your pick.

Some say it’s a matter of income or class. Some say teachers expect less of minority students or lack the cultural awareness to reach them. Some say it’s a culturally biased curriculum. Some blame racism. Some blame minority parents.

Whatever the cause, district assessments find that the typical minority student arrives in kindergarten without the skills that the typical white 5-year-old brings.

And those white students don’t stand still, waiting for minority students to catch up. Both improve, making gap-closing difficult.

The district’s 2001 gap-reducing plan emphasizes better attendance, teacher training, hiring goals for minority staff, more flexibility in assigning teachers, better family and community links and better preschool skill development. The district also has standardized reading and math programs.

The district still has little control over teacher assignment but has improved attendance, given lists of expected pre-literacy skills to preschool providers and made big strides in getting better information to teachers. Desktop computers now give teachers more timely information about the skills a student has yet to master, and even provide links to strategies for developing those skills. That’s especially helpful when students transfer.

Race, class, income

Some argue that class and income have more to do with the gap than race. Author Richard Rothstein argues that raising the achievement of lower-class children is a matter of addressing the social and economic conditions of their lives, not just tinkering with their education.

Yet a stark fact suggests that race plays a role: In Minneapolis, even black students who come from families with enough income not to qualify for subsidized school lunches scored the same as low-income whites on the state third-grade reading test in 2004.

One peculiarity of the gap in Minneapolis involves Asian students. For the nation as a whole, it’s white and Asian students who score noticeably higher than other minority groups. But in Minneapolis, Asian students trail both black and Indian students for reading proficiency. That’s likely a matter of recent immigration among southeast Asians who are just establishing themselves economically.

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