New book urges going back to basics to close achievement gap
As a group, African American students continue to score among the lowest of all racial groups on standardized K-12 and college entrance exams. Whether right or wrong, fair or unfair, standardized test scores are used to determine which students are accepted into gifted programs and the university of choice—and which students are placed in special education and remedial programs.
Unless the tide of failure is reversed, African American students run the risk of being excluded from educational programs that could help them reach their full potential.
Disturbing Revelations from Standardized Tests
Reading. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), in 2007 Black 4th-graders scored, on average, 27 points lower than whites (on a 0–500 scale. The gap did not change at the 8th-grade level.
On average, Black 12th-graders read at the same level as white 8th-graders. Many studies have found that dropping out of high school and prison incarceration begin with ongoing difficulties in reading and writing.
Mathematics. Although the Black-white gap in math among 4th-graders has narrowed since 1990, Blacks still scored 26 points lower than whites in 2007. The picture was the same among Black 8th-graders.
Furthermore 4th-grade math scores in high-poverty public schools were lower than higher-income schools. High poverty schools have the lowest percentage of white students, the highest percentage of Black students, the highest percentage of students who speak a language other than English at home, and most troubling, the highest percentage of 4th-graders who were taught by a teacher with less than five years of teaching experience.
College Entrance Exams. According to the College Board, 1,877 African American students scored higher than 1300 out of a possible 1600 on the SAT in 2003, compared with nearly 150,000 students overall. Of all racial groups, African American students were the only group to post a decrease in ACT composite scores since 2003. Universities across the nation report that in part, low performance on college entrance exams has contributed to a significant decline in African American student enrollment.
Closing the Gap
Finding ways to close the academic achievement gap between Black and white students has been like a search for the holy grail—tantalizing but elusive. Furthermore, programs and services designed to help African American students catch up are at risk due to cutbacks in state and federal education budgets. Dr. Veda Jairrels, author of the newly released African Americans and Standardized Tests: The Real Reason for Low Test Scores, has rediscovered a deceptively simple remedy that was enjoyed by families long before television and the Internet began to monopolize students’ time. To improve their scores on standardized tests, Dr. Jairrels says that African American students must increase the time they read for pleasure.
No stone should be left unturned in the quest to help Black children improve their scores on standardized tests. Such tests are used as indicators of academic performance, knowledge acquired, benchmark levels, and capacity to learn. African American children and adults are often kept out of educational programs, schools, universities, jobs, and even preferred military branches and rankings because of low standardized test scores.
The ability to read and performing well on standardized tests go hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, in some inner cities and poor rural communities, some 68 percent of low-income 4th graders cannot read at a basic level. African American students lag “significantly” behind their white counterparts in reading ability.
While acknowledging the impact of poverty, environmental stressors, parental education, teacher quality, the impact of teacher race, inferior preschools, class size, and teacher absenteeism on student performance, Dr. Jairrels returns to her thesis in her no-nonsense style: increased time spent reading for pleasure will improve scores on standardized tests, and she presents a tremendous body of research to substantiate her claim.
As Dr. Jairrels investigated the reading habits of American students, she found quite a disparity between the amount of time African American students and other groups devote to reading for pleasure:
• Some African Americans have not engaged in long-term pleasure reading since birth (i.e., parents reading to their infant children).
• According to the federal government, 68 percent of white children are read to every day, compared to 50 percent of African American children.
• The report also stated that children living with one parent are less likely to be read to than children living with two parents.
• During the summer, low-income students do not read as much as upper-income students (the so-called “Harry Potter Divide”).
Some African American parents underestimate the amount of reading time that is needed for children to maximize standardized test scores. “The lack of early reading experiences and a lack of reading above and beyond what is required for school detrimentally affect the performance of African Americans on standardized tests,” says Dr. Jairrels. “Some parents don’t believe that improving test scores can be improved by the simple act of having their children read for pleasure before going to bed.”
30 Minutes A Day
Long-term reading beginning at birth (i.e., parents reading daily to their children) must become an integral part of the entire African American community. Dr. Jairrels suggests that students read for 30 minutes a day if their goal is to earn average scores on standardized tests and for longer periods if they want to score above average. Students should read for fun—comic books, short stories, chapter books, etc.
According to Dr. Jairrels, reading for fun builds vocabulary and improves comprehension and fluency—the same skills that are needed to master standardized tests.
African American parents will find that Dr. Jairrels’ reading prescription can be a joyful time for the entire family. Using research, stories from the classroom, and common sense, Dr. Jairrels offers a strategy that any parent/guardian can do any place, any time. Her suggestions for implementing reading times at home will empower busy parents to participate in their children’s education. Like Dr. Jairrels says, “No more excuses. Read to your baby from day one on, and have your child read to you!”