Achievement gap widens between white, minority students in Alexandria

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Achievement gap widens between white, minority students in Alexandria
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State and local officials are repeating calls for an overhaul of the No Child Left Behind act after Alexandrias public schools once again fell short of a passing grade.

Just one school, Charles Barrett Elementary, passed the increasingly tougher Adequate Yearly Progress standards mandated by the federal government, according to results released by the state Thursday. Alexandria City Public Schools also failed as a district for the fifth consecutive year. 

Despite the failing grade, the city is in good company. Roughly 38 percent of the states schools and only four districts or 3 percent passed the test. For the second consecutive year, Virginia failed as a state.

To meet this years AYP, a school, district or state must have seen 86 percent of its students demonstrate proficiency in reading and 85 percent in math during the annual Standards of Learning tests. Thats up from 81 percent in reading and 80 percent in math the year before.   

Superintendent Morton Sherman has one word for the ever-rising standards: poppycock.

The story for me is that NCLB failed and has been a failed law for a long time, Sherman said. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan predicted this last year, that this [legislation] is going to fall apart under the weight of its own inconsistencies and now were seeing the results of that. The pressure for us is achievement, not AYP.

Enacted in 2001, the legislation which will require 100 percent proficiency by 2014 has several flaws, Sherman said. By gradually raising the requirement it effectively wrote off a generation of underperforming children, saying their failure was acceptable, he said. 

It also expects all students, even a child new to the school, district or country, to perform equally well an aspect of the regulation local school officials have long struggled with, Sherman said. 

And private schools arent required to undergo the same scrutiny.

The law has been applied inconsistently. Its been a bad law, Sherman said. Heres the fallacy, the deep failure of this law: If Im a kid from El Salvador or Honduras and I just walk in that year, Im expected to take the same test and pass at the same rate as [the other children].

WHITE MINORITY OUTPERFORMS BLACK, HISPANIC STUDENTS

While the achievement gap between white students and their black and Hispanic counterparts has shown some improvement in the past three years, there was more bad news than good in the results. 

In reading, black students lagged behind their white peers by 17 percentage points, up from 14 the previous year; Hispanics saw their percentage point gap with their white classmates widen from 17 to 19. 

In math, the performance gap between white and black students rose to 21 percentage points from 19 the year prior. The gap between white and Hispanic students also rose to 21 percentage points, up from 20. Still, both groups performed better compared to white students than during the 2008-09 school year. 

White students are a minority in ACPS, comprising about 25 percent of the student population. Black students make up roughly 34 percent and Hispanic comprise 30 percent. 

Narrowing, and then closing, the achievement gap remains the districts focus moving ahead, Sherman said. We have set a goal of focusing on the achievement gap and were looking to decrease that year after year, Sherman said. Were going to continue to spread the argument that the NCLB assessments for math and reading are not sufficient.

Alexandria School Board Chair Sheryl Gorsuch agrees. Using one measuring stick for the performance of every student does not account for students’ individual experiences: poverty level, learning ability, family life and other socioeconomic factors, she said.
“The achievement gap could also be called ‘the preparation gap,’ ” Gorsuch said. “It’s about what students bring with them to school.” 

CHANGE COMING

Top White House officials, including Duncan, have been critical of the NCLB legislation, which was passed under President George W. Bush. Days before Virginia residents learned how their local schools fared, Duncan announced the administration would give states more flexibility to reach higher results.

Its drawn applause and praise from state Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia Wright, but the specifics wont be known until next month, said Julie Grimes, Virginia Department of Education spokeswoman.

We feel that were in a good position to prove that what we already have in place [for accountability] would be workable, we just really dont know what limitations or requirements there may be until the specifics are released, she said. Were in limbo.

There has always been a process to request a waiver for NCLBs standards one made by Virginia a year ago was denied but Grimes welcomes any move to put the accountability requirements back into the hands of state officials. 

Testing students and their teachers to maintain standards are not a new concept in Virginia. The state SOL tests predates NCLB by years, Grimes said. 

We are not against accountability, we are for accountability and thats why in the mid-90s, years before NCLB even became a possibility, Virginia put the SOLs in place, she said. Were not against accountability, we just see that [as] NCLB has progressed schools that really arent low performing schools are being lumped in and misidentified.

David Sachs contributed to this report.

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