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Achievement Gaps Show Little Change for Black Students

Despite some progress since 1990, Black students continue to trail White students significantly in both math and reading at critical stages of K-12 education, a new federal report says.

Black students scored 26 to 31 points lower than their White counterparts in 2007 under the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often dubbed “the nation’s report card” because it is one of the few national barometers of achievement during the elementary and secondary years.

Back in 1990, the gap was slightly higher, ranging from 29 to 33 points, said the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). NAEP includes assessments of reading and math achievement at both the fourth- and eighth-grade levels.

In presenting the data at a conference Tuesday in Washington, D.C., NCES noted that both Blacks and Whites had achieved higher test scores in 2007 compared with the previous decade. Blacks were able to narrow the gap in fourth-grade math and reading but not in either subject at the eighth-grade level.

As a result, education experts noted that the findings, at best, signify only modest gains.

“In 2007, both groups scored the highest ever in reading and math. But the gaps between the races are still large,” said Hugh Price, former National Urban League president and a Princeton University scholar.

Price said his own analysis of the data highlighted other “alarming” trends. For example, more than half of Black fourth-graders were below basic in reading in 2007. More than one-third, or 36 percent, scored below basic in math.

“The bottom line is — despite encouraging signs of progress reflected in the most recent NCES reports, the pace of improvement is too sluggish,” Price said.

One noteworthy finding in the data is that Northeast and Midwest states sometimes fared worse than states of the South, where racial gaps have long been a focus of attention from scholars and the federal government.

In math, for example, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma were among only six states with achievement gaps smaller than the national average for both fourth and eighth grades. Outside of Washington, D.C., Wisconsin had the greatest gap — 38 points — closely followed by Connecticut and Illinois.

Wisconsin also was the only state to have a reading gap higher than the national average at both the fourth- and eighth-grade levels.

Looking only at eighth grade — the achievement level closest to higher education — the state-by-state data showed little overall progress in narrowing the gap from prior levels. Only four states narrowed the achievement gap between Blacks and Whites in math: Arkansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas. No states made significant progress in closing the gap in 8th grade reading, the study said.

Stuart Kerachsky, acting NCES commissioner, said Tuesday’s report was the first NAEP study to focus on White/Black achievement at the state level. “This gives us a more complete picture than can be obtained from national results alone,” he said.

In suggesting strategies to address the gaps, Price recommended greater adoption of military-like models and methods in troubled schools. Accountability, teamwork, structure, mentoring and recognition are military frameworks that can be adopted in public schools or second-chance programs for dropouts.

Community groups also should assume greater leadership roles in developing achievement and accountability programs.

“We need a constant drumbeat for achievement that reaches every school, every classroom and every community,” he said.

“Achievement Gaps: How Black and White Students in Public Schools Perform in Mathematics and Reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress” is available online at

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