Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Nebraska’s Racial Achievement Gap
Is Nearly the Worst in the Nation

Nebraskans will probably be shocked to learn that the racial achievement gap in reading and math is wider in Nebraska than in almost any other state, including the Deep South, Nebraska Department of Education chief Roger Breed was quoted as saying recently in The New York Times. He added that the disparity is “not acceptable.”

Nebraska’s test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, when split out by race, indicate that only the District of Columbia and Wisconsin have a wider chasm in academic achievement between black and white than the Cornhusker State does.

When black children do significantly worse on nationally-standardized tests than white children, and your state’s gap is just about the widest in the country, it raises a number of red flags.

It also adds fuel to the fire of those who deplore the 50% minority dropout rate in Nebraska. They also may consider the possibility of 1960s-style civil rights litigation which could be filed in an attempt to repair this situation, but which could give the state a black eye nationally and cost a bundle. Or the stats may make the economic development crowd worry about the impact on the Cornhusker State’s reputation for being able to fill higher-paid knowledge-based jobs.

Then there’s the basic worry: that people are going to assume that Nebraska must be “racist” if its black-white education numbers are so far apart.

Eight-grade math posts our worst showing for African-American students. The Times reported that in eighth grade math, the average score for Nebraska’s black students in 2007 was 240 on a 500-point scale. That compares with the national average for blacks of 259. The average score for black eighth graders was 246 in Alabama, 251 in Mississippi, 258 in Louisiana, and 261 in Georgia.

In contrast, the average score for white eighth graders in Nebraska in math was 291. That’s almost exactly the national average, resulting in a black-white gap in the Cornhusker State of 51 points, far larger than in any other state, according to the report.

The study was based on results of the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, prepared by the National Center for Education Statistics:


Nationally, the difference in reading and math NAEP test scores between white students and black students is approximately equivalent to 2½ years of schooling, according to the Times. Even though the gap is wide, it used to be wider 15 years ago, the statistics show. Educators blame the gap on the legacy of slavery, racism and poverty among African-Americans.

Local observers add that the wrong methods of teaching math and reading in the early grades have been prevalent in Nebraska for decades. Despite extra tens of millions spent in the Omaha Public Schools and the Lincoln Public Schools on their pockets of poverty in the inner cities, the gap between the races has narrowed much less than in other states.

Equally disturbing for many is the fact that Nebraska’s average scores for white students are mediocre, given our relatively low rates overall of poverty, relatively high rates of educational attainment by parents, relatively stable families in Nebraska compared to other states, and other indicators which in general point to “more teachable” student populations in Nebraska than elsewhere.

What children of all demographic groups and income levels need to excel is systematic, intensive, explicit phonics reading instruction, and a back-to-the-basics curriculum for math as well, to provide a more solid academic base, observers say. Very few schools in Nebraska offer those foundational curricula, however.

Often, the math and reading deficits of Nebraska minority students are concealed in the overall scores, so the disaggregation of the data by race is a welcome step for clarity. To many, it was a surprise to see that Northern states, including Nebraska, had a wider achievement gap than the states in the Old South. The size of that gap is a shock, too. In Nebraska, the math gap in the average test scores reflects a disparity of around 5 years of schooling.

A look at the results shows that in reading, the picture is no better. For fourth-grade reading, Nebraska’s overall score of 223 is slightly higher than the national average for public schools, 220. But black 4th-graders in Nebraska scored only 194, a racial achievement gap of 36 points, or about 3½ grade levels, in the key skill of reading.

Only the District of Columbia, with a gap of 67 points, and Wisconsin, with 38, did worse in terms of a racial gap in fourth-grade reading. Note that eight states, including the Dakotas and Wyoming, do not have enough African-American students to produce a statistically significant average and were excluded from the results.

The Times reported that Wisconsin was the only state in which the black-white achievement gap in 2007 was larger than the national average in the tests for fourth and eighth grades in both math and reading, according to the study.

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Susan, thank you for this detailed information, better than the local newspaper, on the disgraceful racial learning gap in Nebraska, largely in Omaha, where most African-Americans live in this state.

Something needs to change. Charter schools CAN educate minorities very well, with NO skimming of students.And they do it, on average, with only 62% of the tax monies used by regular public schools.

I doubt if we will get the wholesale changes needed in Omaha with the present superintendent. Nebraska's football team is doing much better because they have a new and different coach. That's almost surely what OPS needs. If we have to pay $500,000 to get somebody who can close the learning gap and better educate all students, that would be money well spent.We should look to hiring administrators from KIPP and other successful charter schools as one option.
Thanks a lot for a bunch of good tips. I look forward to reading more on the topic in the future. Keep up the good work! This blog is going to be great resource. Love reading it.
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