[lg policy] Alarming' new test-score gap discovered in Seattle schools
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Mon Dec 19 15:35:44 UTC 2011
'Alarming' new test-score gap discovered in Seattle schools
For the first time, Seattle Public Schools officials have broken down test
scores by specific home language. The recently announced results revealed a
surprising trend that may have implications for policy around the district.
By Brian M. Rosenthal<http://search.nwsource.com/search?searchtype=cq&sort=date&from=ST&byline=Brian%20M%2E%20Rosenthal>
Seattle Times education reporter
[image: Enlarge this
Student test scores by language spoken at home
African-American students whose primary language is English perform
significantly worse in math and reading than black students who speak
another language at home — typically immigrants or refugees — according to
new numbers released by Seattle Public Schools.
District officials, who presented the finding at a recent community meeting
at Rainier Beach High School, noted the results come with caveats, but
called the potential trend troubling and pledged to study what might be
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 administration has for years analyzed test scores by race. It has never
before broken down student-achievement data by specific home language or
country of origin — it is rare for school districts to examine test scores
at that level — but it is unlikely that the phenomenon the data suggest is
In fact, some national experts said the trend represented by the Seattle
data is not surprising. They pointed to some studies about college
attendance and achievement indicating that immigrant families from all
backgrounds tend to put a larger emphasis on education than those families
that have been in the country longer.
Traditional factors in low performance, such as poverty and single-parent
homes, are generally shared by black immigrants and nonimmigrants alike.
The new finding may help Seattle educators more accurately pinpoint
students who are struggling and figure out how to help them, School Board
However, district officials said they need to study the new data further
before speculating about the reasons for it or making policy changes in
Some community members said the administration doesn't appear to be taking
the results seriously enough.
"I saw that and I was shocked," Rainier Beach PTSA President Carlina Brown
said about the presentation. "I was shocked, and we're not getting a sense
of urgency from the district. We need a timeline. Not another committee. We
need to know what they're doing and when."
*Fresh look at data*
Mark Teoh, the district's data manager, said he has been wanting to break
down student-achievement data this way for years.
His team finally 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
The numbers do have significant limitations, Teoh said. That's because they
are based on home-language information that is entirely self-reported, and
the data exclude English Language Learners — an optional program for
students who score poorly on an English proficiency test.
Most of all, Teoh said, because the English-speaking category includes
students of many black ethnic groups, it's impossible to compare specific
At the recent community meeting, much of that distinction was lost on the
parents in the audience.
"It's very alarming that students that were born right here are at the
bottom of the barrel," said Vallerie Fisher, whose daughter is a senior at
Rainier Beach. "How is that possible?"
The answer to that question may lie in the culture of immigrant families,
national education experts said.
Many of those 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
Pamela Bennett, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, agreed. She
conducted a study in 2009 that found that immigrant black high-school
graduates attend college at a much higher rate than black or white students
born in the U.S. The reason was that the immigrants had a higher
socioeconomic background, she said.
But that explanation may falter when Seattle's Somali population is
Many of the Somalis, after all, did not follow a normal pattern of
immigration. Their families 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.
Veronica Gallardo, the director of international programs for Seattle
Public Schools, speculated that the trauma experienced by Somali families
causes them to value the opportunity education provides. In addition,
Somali community groups tend to prioritize education, said Alexandra Blum,
who works with the Somali Community Services Coalition, a nonprofit that
works to empower families in King County.
Seattle School Board member Betty Patu, who has worked for decades with
community groups serving students of color, said she has noticed that all
immigrant families, regardless of socioeconomic status, place high value on
"Their motivation is different," she said. "When you leave your country,
you come here to do something. You don't come here just to sit around and
But fellow board member Harium Martin-Morris cautioned against drawing
conclusions, based on such limited results, about the value specific
communities place on education.
"I would be careful of over-interpreting what this data is actually
saying," he said. "It is interesting, but I hope people don't draw the
Another board member, Marty McLaren, has a different theory.
McLaren, a former teacher, believes that black students whose families have
been in the U.S. for generations often perform poorly because schools and
general societal structures have imposed a culture of low expectations on
them dating back to the days of slavery.
"It's heartbreaking," she said of the trend, which she classified as
institutionalized racism. "I've had many of those students. They're bright
and they're wonderful. And they're discouraged."
Rita Green, vice president of the Rainier Beach PTSA, said teachers don't
push black students as hard as immigrant students.
Several studies have shown that teachers' feelings about how students will
perform impact how the students actually perform.
School Board Vice President Kay Smith-Blum said the newly identified gap
should serve as an argument for the importance of motivating all children,
but also teaching in different ways to reach different students.
"It goes back to, how do we create a set of materials and tool kits for our
teachers that will allow them to be successful with any person in any
student population?" she said.
*Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal at seattletimes.com. On
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