A Broken System: There’s A Racial Achievement Gap And Black Students Are Coming In Last

August 26, 2019  |  

African-American boy in elementary school, writing

Source: kali9 / Getty

America is in the midst of an education crisis. Sadly, this deeply fractured education system is hurting students of color the most. Throughout our series, Broken System, we will highlight some of the most pressing issues impacting Black students today.

My first teaching job was in the South Bronx. The district had a reputation that preceded it – and not in a good way.

“It’s the hunger games over there,” my stepdaughter joked during one of our weekend brunch outings.

I chuckled uncomfortably as I allowed the weight of her comment to fall on my chest, taking my breath away from me like those anvils would after toppling a “Looney Tunes” character. She was barely 14 — an incoming high school freshman — and even she knew my district was no place for teachers or students.

Nothing she said had surprised me exactly. I knew that I was embarking upon a challenging time. Red flags regarding my new school were cropping up left and right. The most alarming of them all was the number 7. Seven represented the percentage of students who received a proficiency score on state math and reading exams. Out of more than 300 students, only 7 percent were performing on grade level. That was my introduction to the achievement gap.

The achievement gap is defined by Education Week as a “disparity in academic performance between groups of students. The achievement gap shows up in grades, standardized-test scores, course selection, dropout rates, and college-completion rates, among other success measures.”

The students most significantly impacted by this gap are minority students. It’s easy for some to write standardized test scores off as just some numbers that mean nothing. However, the reality is that when only a handful of an entire student body is managing to meet state-mandated benchmarks that students in other areas in the same grade are able able to meet and exceed without issue, it’s problematic. In addition, it is reflective of a much larger issue, especially when the students failing to meet the mark are primarily minority students and those living at or beneath the poverty line.

“Educational inequality is probably, more than anything else, the fundamental root of broader inequality,” explains Ronald Ferguson, Faculty Director of The Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University. “If we look at inequality in access to particular careers, inequality in income and wealth, inequality in political participation. All of those things are mitigated by equalizing the skills that education produces. Not only the academic skills but the dispositions, the frames of mind, the conscientiousness, the diligence, the sense of agency.”

Let’s examine college entrance exams for further context. According to The 74 Million, data collected from 2017 SAT scores revealed some soul-crushing statistics in regard to Black students. Asian students led the way with an average score of 1181. White students averaged 1118, multiracial students 1103. Hispanic students secured an average of 990 and Black students, 941. The average score for all test takers was 1060. The College Board recommends that students score at least a 533 in reading and a 527 in math. By the board’s standards, ability to meet these benchmarks measures a student’s ability to earn at least a C in college entry-level courses. Seventy percent of Asian students, 59 percent of white students, 31 percent of Hispanic students, and 20 percent of Black students met this benchmark in 2017.

Sadly, the disparities don’t begin with college entrance exams. Racial disparities in academic achievement begin to slither to the surface as early as preschool and are most damaging in middle school. Junior high school sets the foundational blocks upon which high school learning is built and high school prepares students for college. When students are being pushed along without those essential building blocks being cemented in place, a student’s likelihood of succeeding in college and beyond decreases significantly.

“I think there is nothing more important we can do to produce the type of society we want than to raise outcomes in the field of education, that knowing someone’s race or ethnicity tells you nothing at all about what their test scores or grades or occupation might be,” Ferguson continued.

Just as that 7 percent had suggested, when I met my 8th graders that September, it didn’t take long for me to recognize that they were very much below grade level. It was not that they were incapable of achieving, but they were victims of a system that did not set them up to do so. My very presence in that classroom at that school was evidence of the system’s failure.

Already being so far behind, those students needed a competent, well-seasoned teacher. Instead, they got me: an inexperienced rookie with the best of intentions, a whole lot of love, but not the slightest clue about what I was doing or how to realistically get them to where they needed to be before they were shuffled along to high school. I loved those kids hard, but not even my love was enough to get them on grade-level or shield them from a flawed system that had already failed them. Sadly, the experiences of other rookie teachers in my cohort seemed to echo mine. One of our education professors made a practice of setting aside the first 20 minutes of class just to have emotional well-being check-ins. There were always tears. Lots of tears. None of us could have ever imagined things could be so bad or that our students could be so overworked in their efforts to make a difference and still seemingly get nowhere. We are failing our students daily.

“There’s not just one challenge to face when we talk about achievement gaps,” said Ferguson. “Even if we just talk about racial achievement gaps. We have students of color in high-income suburban districts that are lagging their white classmates. We have inner-city school districts that are high poverty that have a difficult time attracting teachers. The work that needs to happen is to figure out how in each of these contexts, we can make the changes necessary to produce the excellence to which we aspire. There are needs that students in inner cities have that people in upper-income suburbs never imagined.”

Awareness surrounding disparities in education has helped to improve outcomes for students of color; however, the gap remains wide between Black students and their white counterparts. Many men and women are working tirelessly to improve the education system, but there is still much work to be done.

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