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Study finds disparity in black achievement

Thu., Dec. 22, 2011

Immigrants outperform U.S.-born students

SEATTLE – A new look at test scores by Seattle Public Schools shows American-born black students lag behind black immigrants in academic achievement.

African-American students, whose primary language is English, perform significantly worse in math and reading than black students who speak another language at home, the Seattle Times reported Monday.

The results were presented at a community meeting at Rainier Beach High School. Michael Tolley, an executive director overseeing Southeast Seattle schools, said at the meeting that the data exposed a new achievement gap that is “extremely, extremely alarming.”

The school district for years has analyzed test scores by race, but now is doing a more nuanced breakdown.

District officials have pledged to find out what might be causing this disturbing trend.

District officials said they need to study the new data further before speculating about the reasons for it or making policy changes in response.

Mark Teoh, the district’s data manager, said he has wanted to break down student-achievement data this way for years.

His team started the project two months ago. First, the number-crunchers got all of last year’s state test scores in reading and math. Then they compared the scores against information provided by students each year about the languages they speak at home.

The results, although preliminary, were eye-opening: Only 36 percent of black students who speak English at home passed their grade’s math test, while 47 percent of Somali-speaking students passed. Other black ethnic groups did even better, although still lower than the district average of 70 percent.

In reading, 56 percent of black students who speak English passed, while 67 percent of Somali-speaking students passed. Again, other black ethnic groups did better, though still lower than the district average of 78 percent.

Teoh noted the numbers are based on self-reported home-language information and exclude English Language Learners, which is an optional program for students who score poorly on an English proficiency test.

He also said that because the English-speaking category includes students of many black ethnic groups, it’s impossible to compare specific ethnic groups.

Many immigrant families, who often were relatively wealthy and well-educated in their home countries, have strong social-support systems that emphasize education, said Mike Petrilli, the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank based in Washington, D.C.

That doesn’t explain Somali student numbers.

Many of the Somali immigrants in Seattle did not follow a normal pattern of immigration. They came to the U.S. to escape their war-torn country, many by way of refugee camps. But they still did better than English-speaking African Americans on the tests.


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