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The Education Achievement Gap: Minnesota's Embarrassment
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The Education Achievement Gap

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A troubling disparity

Minnesota students are traditionally among the nation's top performers on key standardized tests. Unfortunately, the statewide averages mask an embarrassing reality. Students of color consistently score far below their white classmates.

This disparity in academic performance between groups of students is known as the achievement gap.

It's a national problem. But Minnesota's gap is particularly wide.

A recent report from the Education Trust, Inc., highlighted the issue. Minnesota eighth graders ranked first in the nation in math on the 2003 National Assessment for Educational Progress. The average score among the state's white students (291) topped the list. The average score for African American students in Minnesota (251) ranked 22nd among the 50 states. Only Wisconsin had a wider gap between white and black scores.

The low test scores are a point of frustration to some; a source of anger for others. The Rev. Randolph Staten of the Minnesota Coalition of Black Churches says state officials have failed to adequately address the educational disparities.

"We wonder why it is with so many of our children being destroyed we have not declared an emergency in the state of Minnesota," Staten said.

Achievement gaps are often attributed to income level and home environment. Low-income families often have few educational resources at home. Recent immigrants don't always have the English language skills needed to keep pace in school. Some experts also point to low classroom expectations, peer pressure and teacher quality as key factors.

The gap also shows up in graduation rates and college attendance. A recent report from the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership showed a slight increase in higher education enrollment among students of color. But Carlos Mariani-Rosa, MMEP executive director, says the high school drop out rate is tempering the success.

"We are only preparing a fraction of the students that this state needs if it is our choice to be a high skill, high wage, high quality of life state," Mariani said. "And we're only preparing a small fraction of the students of color that are coming through our educational system."

Educators are trying lots of strategies to narrow that gap. Smaller class sizes, expanded early-childhood education programs, higher academic standards and more rigorous courses offer some promise.

The federal government is also pushing schools to narrow the achievement gap. The No Child Left Behind Act established new accountability measures that more clearly identify racial disparities in every school. The federal law also requires those schools to raise the academic performance of all student groups. U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige describes the achievement gap as the civil rights issue of our time.

"Prejudice will not end until we close the achievement gap--not by lowering standards but by raising all children to meet the highest standards of education," Paige said.