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Black students trail whites in Wash. school tests

Despite years of work to improve black students’ test scores, they continue to trail white students in Washington state’s public schools, a federal report has found.

Nationwide, reading and math scores are improving for black students in public schools, but because white students also are improving, the disparity has lessened only slightly, according to the report released last week by the U.S. Department of Education.

Of Washington state’s 1.03 million students, 5.5 percent are black, according to state data from 2007.

Terry Edwards, chief academic officer for the Everett School District, believes factors other than ethnicity figure into the achievement gap.

“We do a disservice to trying to help kids reach achievement by reducing it to just the ethnicity piece,” Edwards said.

In Everett schools, for example, white students outperform their black peers, but a close look at the data shows poverty and English fluency are more closely connected to student achievement than race.

The divide between minority and white students is considered one of the most pressing challenges in public education. Experts say many factors make it harder for black children to learn.

More black children live in poverty, which is linked to an array of problems — low birth weight, exposure to lead poisoning, hunger, too much TV watching, too little talking and reading at home, less involvement by parents and frequent school-changing.

The gap exists even before kids start school. But schools don’t mitigate the problem, said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a children’s advocacy group.

“African-American students are less likely than their white counterparts to be taught by teachers who know their subject matter,” Haycock said.

“They are less likely to be exposed to a rich and challenging curriculum,” she said. “And the schools that educate them typically receive less state and local funding than the ones serving mainly white students.”

Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, schools must track the performance of kids based on race. If those groups of children don’t score well enough on standardized tests, their schools can be penalized.

The superintendent of Washington state schools, Randy Dorn, has made closing the achievement gap and lowering the dropout rate for all students his top priorities, along with changing the ways schools are funded and replacing the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, his spokesman Nathan Olson said. Last week, Dorn created a new cabinet-level position to address dropout rates and achievement gaps.

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