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Racial learning gap defies easy explanation or solution
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Goldee Schear, a teacher at Citview Performing Arts Magnet in Minneapolis, helps students catch up on their reading skills. (MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)
Any way you look at it, students of color aren't doing as well in school as their white classmates. The academic disparities among racial groups are known collectively as "the achievement gap." Each round of test scores puts the problem in sharp focus. It's a persistent, national problem. But recent reports have shown an especially wide gap in Minnesota. There's no single cause, or a clear solution. Still, schools are under increased pressure to close the divide.

St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota students are traditionally among the country's top performers on standardized tests. Just look at last year's results from the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), an exam now given in every state.

Minnesota eighth graders, on average, ranked first in math. However, a closer examination of the numbers can quickly temper one's state pride. African American students scored an average of 35 points lower than white students. The latest state math test for 11th graders showed an even wider gap of 48 points. These are not isolated results.

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Image Mark Davison

"They're very consistent," said Mark Davison of the Office of Educational Accountability at the University of Minnesota. "Any test, any grade, any subject."

Davison spends a lot of time crunching the numbers from statewide tests. He says the pattern is always the same. White students get the highest scores, followed by Asians, Hispanics, American Indians and African Americans. Davison says scores for all students groups have steadily improved since the state began testing in 1998. But he's found little evidence to show the achievement gaps among those groups are narrowing.

"Part of the problem is the advantaged students are, in fact, making good progress," Davison said. "And so the disadvantaged students are chasing a moving target. And so if your disadvantaged students make as much progress as other students do, they'll remain just as far behind as they were at the beginning of the year."

Minnesota's achievement gap is particularly wide. The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group, compared the performance of all 50 states on that 2003 math exam. It found only Wisconsin had a slightly wider gap than Minnesota between white and black test scores. It's a sore spot for state officials.

Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren says too many children have been ignored.

"It's very, very disturbing," Seagren said. "It makes me angry and upset and worried, that we continue to have this kind of a gap. And we have to pull together, all of us, to close it."

Summer school is one opportunity to close the gap. At Cityview Performance Arts Magnet school in Minneapolis, first and second grade students who've fallen behind get some extra work on their reading skills. The students in this classroom are mostly African American, Asian and Latino. Teacher Goldee Shear roams the room with a sense of urgency. She says students have their best chance to get back on track before they leave the elementary grades.

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Image Nell Collier

"By the time they get to seventh grade, and they're reading at a third-grade level, you have four jumps that you're trying to make," Schear said. "The span has widened, they've fallen through. And not only is it their level, but their attitude sucks and their desire for learning. It's motivation. But when they're little and they're smaller, I wouldn't say it's easier but it's more doable."

Cityview is a kindergarten through eighth grade school in north Minneapolis. Its test scores fall below state and district averages. Achievement gaps are often attributed to poverty levels and home environment. At Cityview, 80 percent of the students come from low-income families.

Principal Nell Collier says children who don't have books to read at home show up at school with a limited vocabulary. Less than half of the kids in Minneapolis start kindergarten with essential literacy skills, such as rhyming or knowing letter names and sounds. Collier says getting those children enrolled in all-day kindergarten, rather than the traditional half-day, can help close the achievement gap early.

"In a full-day program, many children by the end of the year are reading," Collier said. "Not just recognizing letters or disconnected words but reading."

Schools can help fill in some of the missing pieces, but not all. Collier says some of the learning barriers are much more basic, like when students come to school hungry.

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Image Carlos Mariani-Rosa

"Feed me first then I can learn," Collier said. "But if I'm hungry, and you tell me sit down and do this math, I'm listening to my stomach growl. It's not that I don't want to do the math, but I have a physical need."

Poverty is only part of the story. There are several cases of disadvantaged schools narrowing the gap. There's also evidence of racial gaps among students from middle and upper income families.

For recent immigrants, the gap is linked to their English speaking skills. Some experts claim the neediest students often get the least experienced teachers. Others believe some students of color fall victim to peer pressure that convinces them it's not cool to be smart. Carlos Mariani-Rosa, a DFL state representative from St. Paul and executive director of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, says it can all add up to a climate of low expectations.

"I think that a lot of students come into schools and eventually get very strong messages that say you know what, you're not one of the students that we're really interested in," Mariani-Rosa said. "And unfortunately, they just don't pick that up at schools. They also pick it up out in their communities. Sometimes they pick it up at home, sometimes from their own parents and from their own family members that we don't really expect much of you."

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Image Victoria Davis

The achievement gap is not just about test scores. Wide racial disparities also show up in graduation rates, course selection and college attendance. Victoria Davis of the St. Paul NAACP blames the gap on what she sees as racism within the education system. She points to the disproportionate number of black students who are suspended, expelled or placed in special education classes.

"If you're angry, if you're feeling discriminated against, then the chances of you engaging the cognitive process, so that you can do positive academic gains, is diminished," Davis said. "And so many of our children are in a state during the school day where the are angry because they've been mistreated, they've been punished disparately."

Many educators would take offense at the suggestion of racism. They'd tell you they're trying everything to close the gap. They've reduced class sizes, expanded pre-school programs, brought in adult mentors and set higher academic standards. But some strategies are outside of their control.

Commissioner Seagren says students stand a better chance when their parents care and get involved.

"It's time to be parents," Seagren said. "It's time to take responsibility. If you have a child, then parent that child and nurture that child. Because schools cannot be the parent. Government cannot be the parent for children, only parents can."

Closing the achievement gap is now a national priority. The No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to report how individual racial groups are performing on tests. States must raise the performance of all students or risk losing federal funds. Critics claim the law is too punitive, unrealistic and under funded.

But Eugene Hickok, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, says No Child Left Behind can eventually close the gap.

"I'm very optimistic," Hickok said. "I'm optimistic because every state is doing it. Every state has got a plan. Every state is attempting to get the job done, but they're doing it in their own way. That is not a small accomplishment."

The federal law sets a goal for all students to meet proficiency targets within the next 10 years. And time is just what many struggling students need to find success. Even though African American students complete high school in four years at a much lower rate than white students, a recent report suggests they eventually get the job done. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau show 92 percent of Minnesota residents ages 25 and older are high school graduates. The number holds true for both black and white adults.

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