If one was to look at the data from any state mandated standardized test, the achievement gaps are easily observed. White and Asian students consistently score higher on standardized tests than Black and Latino students on all levels below secondary education. There is a gap in the achievement between these races. In looking at the data alone, one could conclude that race plays a huge role in achievement when it comes to standardized test. However, there are a number of factors that should be considered before making any assumptions regarding the matter. I will examine a few of these factors and give my thoughts on each of them. I will also, argue that socioeconomic status is the separating factor when it comes to achievement more so than a student's race. I will then offer my opinion on ways to close this achievement gap in contrast to methods used in the past.
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There are many opinions as to why the above described achievement gap exist. A good place to start is by analyzing the design and structure of standardized tests in this country. From personal experience, I find that most of the questions on these test use vocabulary and comparisons that would not be familiar to students from less affluent backgrounds. I would argue that standardized tests are culturally biased and put Black and Latino students at a disadvantage. In my view, because Blacks and Latinos are not exposed to the more affluent American Culture their scores on standardized tests are impacted. Blacks and Latinos lack the "cultural capital" that Whites and Asians have. The lack of "cultural capital" results in lower scores on standardized test, which ultimately is reflected as an achievement gap due to race. Is this an issue of race or socioeconomics?
Historically, we have approached the achievement gap as a problem due to race and the attempted solutions have been based on this assumption. I remember programs like "Majority to Minority," which counties like Dekalb County, Georgia implemented in order to level the playing field for all races. This program allowed minority students to voluntarily transfer to schools in different neighborhoods that had different demographics than their current school. Programs like this existed all over the United States throughout the 90's. Race was the focus of these programs. The achievement gap still existed after the expiration of all such programs and we are faced with the same gap in achievement in the modern classroom.
When looking at the data from standardized tests it is easy to be misled. Political leaders and the education decision makers have mostly examined the data on the surface. They have failed to look for a deeper understanding of the separation in achievement between the races. This is evident in all of the proposed solutions to this major problem and the by the focus of government funding. The latest educational policy on education "No Child Left Behind," puts the responsibility on the teacher to overcome outside influence and accomplish the same result with all students. The tools used to measure the teacher's success are standardized test.
With teachers being held accountable for student achievement on standardized tests, the issue of the achievement gaps can be portrayed as an issue that needs to be solved on the classroom level. It almost seems that teachers are failing the Black and Latino students. However, there are so many factors that have a vital role in the achievement of students on standardized tests. Why do political leaders ignore other factors that impact student achievement? Is there a hidden agenda? Is it a method of oppression? I believe there is a hidden agenda and the government polices are used as a method of oppression whether the methods are intended this way or not. All factors that influence student achievement must be considered, and teachers have to voice their concerns. Paulo Freire suggests a liberation that must be achieved by the oppressed, but yet is still mutual between the oppressed and oppressor (Freire, 2005, p.48-49). If this is the method in which liberation must come about, teachers must build their case before it can be presented to the so called "oppressors." Building this case must start with research and identifiable evidence. We must identify and examine other variables that exist and impact student achievement. Once these variables are identified, solutions must be considered and suggested to Government, so that hopefully accountability and the appropriate resources are directed properly. This is a huge task, but it must start somewhere.
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The classroom is the "front line" for the war against the achievement gap. My experience from the classroom and from working in a title one school has shaped my view on why there exists an achievement gap between the races. I feel that socioeconomic status is the most influencing factor when it comes to the achievement of students. As mentioned earlier, Black and Latino students lack the "Cultural Capital" that Whites and Asians have. The reason why they are lacking is because they lack the financial ability that is required to be exposed to the same culture of Whites and Asians. Poor students must overcome obstacles that more affluent students do not have.
I teach students who are forced to work to help support their families. The majority of them come from single family homes or homes where both parents work full time jobs. These students do not take vacations nor have private tutors to help them with assignments. My Latino students have parents that speak limited English or none at all. Their parents are not involved in school activities and rarely show concern regarding the achievement of their children. Most of the parents of the students whom I teach are uneducated and do not have high expectations for their children. These are just a few factors that my students face at home and they translate into low achievement on standardized tests.
In contrast, White and Asian students from higher socioeconomic status are most likely to have, on average, two parent households. The option to have one parent can stay home and help support the child with education is more frequently available in these homes. The parents are more involved in the activities at school and they have high expectations for their child. If their child has a struggle in school, they can afford a private tutor to help them overcome the problem. The parents maintain constant contact with teachers and school administration and are extremely supportive of education. These students can travel and gain vital experiences that allow them to grow and develop at faster rates than less fortunate children.
When race is excluded and socioeconomic status is considered, it gets interesting. A student from higher socioeconomic status will achieve higher than a student from a lower socioeconomic status on standardized tests regardless of race. I have come to this conclusion from my personal experiences. By analysis of my classroom data while teaching over the years, I conclude that poor Black and Latino students score similar to poor White and Asian students on standardized tests. Also, more affluent Black and Latino students score similar to more affluent White and Asian students on standardized tests. I am aware that my sample is not necessarily a direct representation of all schools across this nation, but it is a starting point for further research. It also supports my beliefs regarding socioeconomic status being a better predictor of student achievement than race. How can this issue be resolved?
In the search for a solution, my studies lead me to an article on San Francisco's public schools that M.A. Fletcher references in an article in the Washington Post. San Francisco's public schools were faced with problems similar to those of almost every major city in the United States of America. The schools were segregated by race, which was a result of the different socioeconomic classes. San Francisco latest attempt to preserve heterogeneity of the city's public schools was a complex ranking system, called the "diversity index." This system uses socioeconomics as the determining factor when integrating schools. It was introduced by board members after they were barred in 1999 from using race as a factor when integrating. Officials realized by using socioeconomics as the centerpiece of integration, they would gain racial integration as a byproduct. Gary Orfield a professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education said it best through this statement, "Race isn't class and class isn't race. They overlap substantially but imperfectly" (Fletcher, 2002). This idea gives light to other ways of improving student achievement other than programs that hold teachers and local systems responsible. The idea of integration based on socioeconomic status rather than race, would make a difference in the attempt to balance the inequalities among America's schools. Schools that have the same level of diversity and average family income will perform just as well on standardized tests. This will create a balance in our schools.
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With these factors now identified and presented to the appropriate authorities, funding that is now being misappropriated could be used properly. It will be very expensive to provide transportation to students while integrating the schools, but there should not be a price tag put on this country's future. The future of this country is in the youth, and worth every penny we spend on them. To further our efforts to improve student achievement investments would also be required to offset environmental factors that impact students as well.
With the implementation of integration of our schools based on socioeconomic status and funding to help overcome negative environmental issues, our schools could make a great step toward closing the achievement gap.