African-American students whose primary language is English perform significantly worse in math and reading than black students who speak another language at home–typically immigrants or refugees–according to new numbers released by Seattle Public Schools.
District officials, who presented the finding at a recent community meeting at Rainier Beach High School, noted the results come with caveats, but called the potential trend troubling and pledged to study what might be causing it.
Michael Tolley, an executive director overseeing Southeast Seattle schools, said at the meeting that the data exposed a new achievement gap that is “extremely, extremely alarming.”
In fact, some national experts said the trend represented by the Seattle data is not surprising. They pointed to some studies about college attendance and achievement indicating that immigrant families from all backgrounds tend to put a larger emphasis on education than those families that have been in the country longer.
Traditional factors in low performance, such as poverty and single-parent homes, are generally shared by black immigrants and nonimmigrants alike.
Mark Teoh, the district’s data manager, said he has been wanting to break down student-achievement data this way for years.
The results, although preliminary, were eye-opening:
• Only 36 percent of black students who speak English at home passed their grade’s math test, while 47 percent of Somali-speaking students passed. Other black ethnic groups did even better, although still lower than the district average of 70 percent.
• In reading, 56 percent of black students who speak English passed, while 67 percent of Somali-speaking students passed. Again, other black ethnic groups did better, though still lower than the district average of 78 percent.
The numbers do have significant limitations, Teoh said. That’s because they are based on home-language information that is entirely self-reported, and the data exclude English Language Learners–an optional program for students who score poorly on an English proficiency test.
Many of those [immigrant] families, who often were relatively wealthy and well-educated in their home countries, have strong social-support systems that emphasize education, said Mike Petrilli, the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank based in Washington, D.C.
Pamela Bennett, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, agreed. She conducted a study in 2009 that found that immigrant black high-school graduates attend college at a much higher rate than black or white students born in the U.S. The reason was that the immigrants had a higher socioeconomic background, she said.
But that explanation may falter when Seattle’s Somali population is considered.
Many of the Somalis, after all, did not follow a normal pattern of immigration. Their families came to the U.S. to escape their war-torn country, many by way of refugee camps. But they still did better than English-speaking African Americans on the tests.
Veronica Gallardo, the director of international programs for Seattle Public Schools, speculated that the trauma experienced by Somali families causes them to value the opportunity education provides. In addition, Somali community groups tend to prioritize education, said Alexandra Blum, who works with the Somali Community Services Coalition, a nonprofit that works to empower families in King County.
Another board member, Marty McLaren, has a different theory.
McLaren, a former teacher, believes that black students whose families have been in the U.S. for generations often perform poorly because schools and general societal structures have imposed a culture of low expectations on them dating back to the days of slavery.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said of the trend, which she classified as institutionalized racism. “I’ve had many of those students. They’re bright and they’re wonderful. And they’re discouraged.”