Written by Teresa Wiltz, America’s Wire
WASHINGTON—Educators are expressing alarm that the performance gap between minority and white high school students continues to expand across the United States, with minority teenagers performing at academic levels equal to or lower than those of 30 years ago.
Despite the hope that improving education for children of color would propel them to better life outcomes, Latino and African-American students are not being prepared in high school classrooms for brighter futures. While achievement levels have improved considerably for minority elementary and middle school students, educators say their academic performance drops during high school years.
How prevalent is the achievement gap at the high school level?
On average, African-American and Latino high school seniors perform math and read at the same level as 13-year-old white students.
“We take kids that start [high school] a little behind and by the time they finish high school, they’re way behind,” says Amy Wilkins, vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, a Washington-based educational advocacy group. “That’s the opposite of what American values say education is about. Education is supposed to level the playing field. And it does the opposite. . . .While many people are celebrating our postracial society . . . there is still a significant hangover in our schools.”
The Education Trust says African-American and Latino students have made little to no progress in 12th-grade reading scores since 1994, continuing to lag behind white students. Math achievement has also remained flat, with the gap between white students and those of color widening.
Educators cite these causes for the disparity in performance:
These factors, experts say, produce an opportunity gap for students of color.
“A 12th-grade education in a more affluent neighborhood is not the same as the education in a less affluent neighborhood,” says Dominique Apollon, research director of the Applied Research Center, a national nonprofit with offices in New York, Chicago and Oakland, Calif. “Top students in low-income schools don’t have the opportunity to be pushed further and further.”
Wilkins adds that “school is their best chance of escaping horrible circumstances. To cut them some slack in school is not the appropriate response to racism and poverty in American culture. It is a response that ends up being deadly to the students.”
School advocates say students of color, regardless of class, are frequently met with lowered expectations from teachers and administrators. With such expectations come lowered requirements in the classroom, they say. Students in low-income schools are more likely to be given an “A” for work that would receive a “C” in a more affluent school, according to “Raising Achievement and Closing Gaps Between Groups: Lessons from Schools and Districts on the Performance Frontier,” an Education Trust study released last November.
Students of color are also less likely to be given advanced-level coursework. John Capozzi, principal of Elmont (N.Y.) Memorial Junior-Senior High School, is among educators who call that a civil rights issue. Capozzi says he frequently battles those coursework perceptions, even from fellow educators and accreditation officials evaluating his school.
“They have preconceived notions about minority kids,” says Capozzi, whose students are primarily African-American and Latino. “A large part of my job . . . [is] dispelling the stereotypes of our kids. It’s long been embedded in society.”
“African Americans and Hispanics have been denied access to the more rigorous courses,” Capozzi says. All students, he says, “should be thrown into vigorous classes” and be given proper academic support to ensure their success. If they don’t have access to those classes, he says, they won’t be adequately prepared for college.
Research from the Education Trust study supports his assertion: More white high school graduates were enrolled in college prep courses than were their African-American, Latino and Native American counterparts. Often, schools attended by those minorities do not offer advanced classes.
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