Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington




Last Saturday I spent part of the day at Arlington’s Kenmore Middle School at “Community Conversation: Eliminating Achievement Gaps,” a community dialog sponsored by the Arlington Public Schools Superintendent’s Advisory Committee on the Elimination of the Achievement Gap and a number of school-based community organizations.

Under the magnifying glass were yearly statistical tables showing pass rates of students taking Standards of Learning tests, and Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), and intensified courses for White, Asian, Black, and Hispanic students.

The principal statistics used in the meeting were ten years of assessments of the SOL grades achieved by students in grades 3 through 12. This spring, the school system administered 35,547 assessments of 32 different tests. The good news is that the overall pass rate was 90% in 2008, compared to 65% in 1998. There are gaps among ethnic groups, however. Whites had a 96% pass rate in 2008 (65% in 1998), Asians 95% (69%), Hispanics 82%, and Blacks 74% (37%).

So far so good. The reason we were gathering, however, was that though pass rates have improved steadily every year, the gaps among ethnic groups (specifically, Asians, Hispanics and Blacks compared to White students) also narrowed steadily until it pretty much leveled out in 2004, particularly with Black students. Since then, all have made some improvements, but the gap has not narrowed significantly.

Washington-Lee Assistant principal Tyrone Byrd did an excellent job in presenting complex statistics to us so even he most statistics-challenged among us could understand.

Why has this happened? Did we begin to do things differently in 2003-4? Should we have changed anything in promoting academic improvement? Or have we done everything that can be done and were just facing something mysterious in natural law. None of us were willing to accept the latter.

There is some difference of opinion in academic circles as to what a school system can do to improve academic improvement. One of the most prominent sociologists of the 20th century, James Coleman, conducted a series of major studies of educational equality (or the lack thereof) among Blacks and Whites in the 1960’s. He maintained, after these studies, that the effort of school systems alone to improve the achievement of Blacks in relation to Whites would be only 20% successful. The thrust for change had to come from within the communities themselves.

A few years ago, scholars at the George Mason University School of Public Policy conducted studies of the New York School system. They came to the conclusion that the single most important factor in the achievement levels of students was their economic status, something a school system can do very little to affect. In other words, we must look to programs that improve the economic lives of the poor to ultimately raise achievement levels among all students, regardless of ethnicity.

This may have been in the back of the participant’s minds, but in our breakout groups we concentrated on things the school system could do. One was to expand the SOAR (Success, Opportunity, And Results) program for ninth grade minority students. Another is to expand the Hispanic-oriented PESA (Parent Expectations Support Achievement) to other groups.

There were many other recommendations. The important thing, however, was that a large group reflecting the great diversity of our vibrant Arlington community is actively working on effective solutions. That should make you feel good!

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