Analysis Shows Poverty Plays Small Role in Ohio’s Achievement Gap

Analysis of Ohio's standardized test data shows the alarming persistence of a race-based achievement gap even if the results take into account the students' economic and social background. Exams, given in all grades from kindergarten through high school, demonstrate that the only 64% of black students pass compared to 87% of their white peers.

Race-based performance gaps are nothing new and have been present in the the US schools since the days of segregation. Many experts now believe that the the gap is more the result of higher-than-average rates of poverty among minority students, but at least in Ohio, even when income is accounted for, the gap still exists, according to a report by the The Columbus Dispatch.

Average passing rates among affluent white students last year topped those of affluent black students by 16 percentage points. Poor, white students outperformed black students from poor and wealthy families.

Disparities between races had been narrowing until about five years ago, data show, but the numbers have changed little since then. Now, amid a renewed focus on the topic, schools face increasing pressure to close gaps.

While state officials are looking to penalize districts that fail to address the racial test divide, advocacy groups are organizing to administer pressure on a more local level. Black parents are reviving long-defunct organizations to advocate for minority children – something that many feel districts themselves have failed to do.

Together, everyone is seeking the solution to the problem, and experts believe that the focus on wealth as the root cause is somewhat misguided. Income plays a role, researchers believe, but it's not the only factor behind the puzzling achievement gap.

The poverty rate among blacks in the U.S. –– 25.8 percent, according to Census data –– is higher than any other race except Native Americans. Poor families, in turn, more often face lower-quality preschool options, researchers say.

"These gaps are traceable back to early-childhood education," said Shaun Harper, the director of the University of Pennsylvania Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. "If kids show up in kindergarten not having had high-quality instruction in preschool, they're already starting behind."

Coupled with teachers who lack the training to help, gaps remain, Harper said.

Lowered expectations are also to blame. According to Natasha Ushomirsky, a senior data analyst for the Education Trust, teachers expecting minority students to underperform create a self-perpetuating cycle where black and Latino kids are less likely to be recognized and encouraged in class and underperform as a result.

Studies have found that black and Latino students are less likely to be placed in advanced courses, even if they show promise in a subject. Minority students are also more likely to be taught by less-experienced teachers.

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